In 1972, two Birmingham, Alabama, residents – Johnnie Swanson and Mary Wright – were shot and killed during a robbery of their apartment. A third woman survived because the shooter’s gun jammed. The survivor initially remembered few details about the crime, but later identified Freddie Lee Gaines as the shooter. In accordance with the governing Alabama law at the time, Gaines was tried separately for the two murders. In October 1974, a jury convicted Gaines of second-degree murder in the death of Wright, and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Gaines was acquitted of Swanson’s murder in 1976.
In July 1985, Gaines was released from prison for good behavior. Five years later, in August 1990, Larry Dennis Cohen was arrested on drug charges, and eventually gave the authorities a detailed confession of the 1972 murders. Based on this new evidence of innocence, the prosecution moved to vacate Gaines’s conviction. The trial court granted the motion in February 1991, and all charges were dismissed. In 1996, Gaines received $1 million in compensation from the state legislature, and in February 2005, he received a full pardon.
- Stephanie Denzel