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Anthony Hinton

Other Alabama Murder Exonerations
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On February 23, 1985, 49-year-old John Davidson, the assistant manager of Mrs. Winner’s fried chicken restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, was fatally shot in an after-hours robbery. About $2,100 was missing from the safe.

Davidson was still alive when an exterminator came to the restaurant and found him in the restaurant cooler with two gun shot wounds in the head. Davidson died on February 25 following surgery. The two bullets were removed and turned over to police.

On July 2, 1985, 39-year-old Thomas Wayne Vason, the night manager at Captain D’s restaurant in Bessemer, Alabama, was found dead in the restaurant’s cooler. He had been shot twice in the head and $650 was missing from the safe. Two bullets were removed from Vason’s body.

Police investigators said that based on their examination, the bullets in both crimes were fired from the same gun. There were no fingerprints or other items of physical evidence. Police believed that both men were confronted in the parking lots of the restaurants after closing up for the night and that both were ordered back inside and forced to open the safes. Because both men were found shot in the restaurant coolers, the media branded the perpetrator the “Cooler Killer.”

On July 25, 1985, 55-year-old Sidney Smotherman, the night manager of Quincy’s Family Steak House in Bessemer, closed the restaurant and on his way home stopped at a grocery store shortly after midnight. Another restaurant employee, who coincidentally stopped at the same store, later said that a black man appeared to be watching Smotherman while shielding his face.

Smotherman left the store after making a purchase and while driving home, his car was bumped from behind by another car. When he got out, the driver of the other car emerged with a gun. The gunman forced Smotherman to drive the gunman’s car to Quincy’s and go inside and empty the safe. The gunman ordered him to go to the restaurant’s freezer. Smotherman, who was aware of news accounts of the two other restaurant robbery/murders, said he told the gunman he wanted to be in the cooler because it was not as cold. Smotherman knew that he could lock the cooler from the inside. The gunman agreed and when Smotherman walked into the cooler and turned to pull the door shut, the gunman fired two shots. One struck Smotherman in the head, but did not pierce his skull. Instead, the bullet traveled under his skin and exited down his neck and wound up in his shirt pocket. The other bullet took off the end of a finger of his hand that he had raised to try to protect himself and ricocheted into the cooler. As he fell down, Smotherman kicked the door shut and it locked automatically.

Smotherman waited about 10 minutes and then emerged and called police. Police compared the two bullets from this shooting and said their examination showed that all six bullets in the three crimes were fired by the same gun.

An artist for the Bessemer newspaper worked with police and Smotherman to create a composite sketch. Reginald White, an employee of Quincy’s, told police he recognized the sketch as 29-year-old Anthony Hinton, a man he knew from a second job he had in nearby Hoover, Alabama. White said that about two weeks prior, Hinton approached him and asked him if he was still working at Quincy’s. When he said he was, Hinton asked if “Mr. Don” was the manager. White said that he told Hinton that there was a new manager who had just bought a new Fiero automobile. White said Hinton also asked what time the restaurant closed.

The police prepared a photographic lineup for Smotherman, who selected Hinton as the man who robbed and shot him.

On July 31, 1985, police went to Hinton’s home where he lived with his mother. They found an old, very-worn .38-caliber revolver under his mother’s mattress, but failed to find any evidence linking him to the crimes. He was arrested that day and charged with the robbery of Smotherman.

The gun was turned over to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. Examiners test-fired the gun and said that all six bullets from the three crimes were fired by the gun. The police then charged Hinton with capital murder in the deaths of Davison and Vason.

Hinton went to trial in Jefferson County Circuit Court in September 1986 on the capital murder charges. He never went to trial on the robbery and shooting of Smotherman.

Smotherman identified Hinton as the gunman who robbed and shot him. Smotherman’s co-worker identified Hinton as the man he saw following Smotherman in the grocery store. White testified about his conversation with Hinton prior to the robbery and shooting of Smotherman.

The state firearms experts testified that the bullets from all three crimes had been fired from the gun found under Hinton’s mother’s mattress.

The trial court authorized Hinton’s attorney to spend $1,000 to retain a ballistics expert. The attorney could not get a qualified expert for only $1,000, so instead of requesting more money, the lawyer hired a retired civil engineer whose experience was confined to working with heavy artillery in World War II. The expert had no training or experience in firearms identification, he did not know how to use a microscope to examine bullets, he did not test-fire the gun and he admitted during cross-examination that he was visually impaired—he only had one eye. He testified that the results of his examination were inconclusive.

Hinton testified in his own defense and said he was working at a warehouse where employees were locked inside from midnight until 6 a.m. on the night of the robbery and shooting of Smotherman at Quincy’s. He denied involvement in all three crimes. He said he was driving a small red Nissan at the time of the Quincy’s robbery and owned a small yellow Volkswagen—neither of which fit the description of the larger automobile that Smotherman said his attacker was driving.

On September 17, 1986, the jury deliberated for an hour before convicting Hinton of both murders. In December 1986, the jury voted 10-2 to sentence Hinton to death. Hinton had taken a polygraph examination and although the examiner said Hinton showed no deception when he denied involvement in the crimes, the trial judge declined to allow the jury to hear the polygraph results.

His convictions and death sentence were upheld on appeal to the Alabama Court of Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1998, Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization in Alabama that provides legal assistance to indigent defendants and prisoners, began representing Hinton.

In 2002, EJI commissioned a re-examination of the bullets and gun by three different experts. One was a forensic consultant named John Dillon, who had worked on ballistics identification at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s forensics laboratory and, from 1988 until he retired in 1994, had been a chief in the identification unit at FBI headquarters in Quantico. The other two experts had worked for many years as firearms examiners at the Dallas County Crime Laboratory and had each testified as experts in several hundred cases. All three experts examined the physical evidence and testified that they could not conclude that any of the six bullets had been fired from the revolver.

The prosecution’s response was to ignore the findings and argue that the EJI experts essentially said the same thing that Hinton’s ballistic examiner said at trial—that the results were inconclusive.

In February 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated Hinton’s conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial. The Court ruled that Hinton’s trial lawyer had provided a constitutionally inadequate legal defense by failing to seek more money to obtain a qualified ballistics expert.

The Court also held that the trial judge had been mistaken when he said the defense was entitled to only $1,000 for an expert. The statute relating to such expenses, which at one time had a $1,000 cap, had been amended prior to Hinton’s trial to allow for “any expenses reasonably incurred” as long as the expenses were approved in advance by the trial judge.

Subsequently, in preparation for a retrial, the prosecution had new experts re-examine the bullets and gun. The prosecution experts also concluded that they could not link the bullets from the victims to the gun found in Hinton’s home.

On April 2, 2015, a judge granted the motion by the Jefferson County District Attorney to dismiss the charges and Hinton was released. Efforts to pass legislation in 2017 approving compensation for Hinton failed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/9/2015
Last Updated: 8/1/2017
State:Alabama
County:Jefferson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Convicted:1986
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:Death
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No