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Alabama man to be freed after nearly 30 years on death row

Birmingham, Ala. (Reuters) - A man who has been on death row in Alabama for nearly three decades is expected to walk free on the orders of a local judge, officials said on Thursday.

Anthony Ray Hinton is expected to be released on Friday from a jail in Jefferson County, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections said.

Prosecutors decided not to retry him for the killings of two fast-food managers in 1985 after experts failed to determine that the bullets were fired from the gun found at Hinton’s house, according to District Attorney John Bowers.

“I’m absolutely thrilled. Nothing has kept me up at night more than the fate of Mr. Hinton,” said his attorney, Bryan Stevenson, director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, who has worked on the case for 16 years.

“I don’t think I have ever had a case that so exemplified the problems with our criminal justice system,” he added.

Alabama Circuit Court Judge Laura Petro dismissed the case on Thursday a little over a year after Hinton’s conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hinton, 59, has been in jail since age 29, most of the time in a solitary death row cell, said his lawyer, adding that his client was emotional on Wednesday night before his court date.

“He’s just overjoyed,” said Stevenson.

Hinton plans to stay with a childhood friend upon release, Stevenson said. His mother died while he was in jail and he has no other family in the area.

Hinton’s case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in February last year agreed with the Equal Justice Initiative attorney that Hinton had been inadequately represented at his trial. The Supreme Court ruling found that the court-appointed attorney put on the stand a firearms expert “that he himself deemed inadequate.”

Stevenson said the expert was a civil engineer and lacked proper experience.

Hinton could not afford a defense lawyer, and the court-appointed attorney was paid $1,600 to represent him in three separate cases, including the two murders, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

Fingerprints from the crime scene did not implicate him, nor did a polygraph test administered by police, the group said.

Correctional staff took a liking to Hinton in jail, Stevenson said. “I have never represented anyone who has generated so much goodwill and respect from correctional staff,” he said.

Hinton was linked to the murders by the victim in a third fast-food shooting who identified him as the shooter, it said.

When the third shooting occurred, Hinton was working in a locked warehouse about 15 miles (24 km) away, the group said. His boss and other employees vouched that he could not have committed the crime.

Additional reporting and writing by Letitia Stein in Tampa and David Adams in Miami; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Mohammad Zargham