Second chance granted: Freed inmate 65, but 'a baby out here'
Abner Hines is 65 years old. But in a lot of ways, he feels like he's seeing the world for the first time.
Hines walked out of prison in March after serving 45 years of a life term on a first-degree murder conviction. He was granted clemency last winter.
Adjusting to the traffic, speed and noise associated with traveling in a car made him anxious, as did choosing a meal off a restaurant menu.
"I'm 65, but I'm a baby out here now. It's a different world," Hines said in a recent interview with The Detroit News about 70 days after his release. "When you do the kind of time I've done, there's always a concept that you'll walk out of prison and function normally again. That's not true."
On Feb. 18, 1974, Hines and four friends robbed a local party store. One of the friends along for the crime decided to shoot the shop owner, killing him. Hines was not the shooter, but all five perpetrators were armed.
They intended to make off with some cash and weapons. No one was supposed to get hurt, he said. But after Hines walked out of the store, a member of the group killed shop owner Leonard McNeal.
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Under state law at the time, all five men were charged with the same crime as the one who pulled the trigger — first-degree murder — and all five faced the same sentence — life without parole.
Three of the defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and received five to 20 years in prison with an agreement to testify against Hines and the shooter, Leonard Bradford, who is serving a life sentence.
Hines proceeded to trial with an alibi defense. A jury still found him guilty. He was sent away for life.
Hines appealed his conviction multiple times in state and federal courts, which upheld it. The most recent ruling had been in 2013.
"Although I did not pull the trigger, I recognize that my actions and my behavior was equally responsible for a human being losing his life because I participated in that robbery," he said. "I'm awfully sorry for what I did that evening, and I regret it wholeheartedly."
The state parole board, in a September letter to then-Gov. Rick Snyder, concluded that based on carefully reviewed evidence, Hines “is not a risk to the public safety."
Months earlier though, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office opposed the prospect of Hines' release.
“Despite many years of denying his guilt, he only recently admitted he was in fact guilty of the charges,” the prosecutor’s office wrote in an April 2018 objection letter. “His recent admissions, however, appear to be more self-serving rather than reflective of any real change in him.”
The letter further stresses “a life was taken senselessly” and the law that put Hines behind bars for natural life “reflected the heinousness of the crimes and the community’s sentiment toward those who would commit these crimes.”
But Hines countered that despite the stigma, ex-convicts, like himself, are redeemable.
"When you're poor and especially black, nobody ever talks about a second chance for you," he said. "They talk about throwing you away and throwing away the key."
During his June 2018 commutation hearing, Hines said his value system had reformed from the time when he was an “impulsive, irresponsible, indifferent” young man who’d been running with the wrong crowd and doing the wrong things. He said he knew the opportunity was "rare" for a lifer and "I'm ready."
Hines told The News that his family moved to a "gang-infested" east side neighborhood near Van Dyke and Harper when he was a teenager. He'd carried a gun to school and often engaged in fights before dropping out in the 10th grade.
"Those weapons led us to crime and crime led to prison with a life sentence," he said.
Once his life term was handed down, Hines said he took his father's advice: "Get an education, son, and nobody can take that from you."
Hines said he immediately worked to get a GED and then earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. Seven years into his incarceration, he started attending church services.
Hines, who'd applied for clemency previously, said he credits God for it coming through.
He's since rejoined relatives in Macomb County, including his daughter, who was younger than 2 years old at the time of his conviction. Hines said he's remained close with relatives over the nearly half-century he'd been in prison.
Hines is working as an administrative assistant for his younger sister, Vergenea Hines-Smith, who runs a medical staffing firm and said he plans to pursue a master's degree in computer technology.
Thoughts of her brother's incarceration instantly brings Hines-Smith to tears. He's taken responsibility for the crime he committed, and the family held him accountable as well, she said.
"It was scary because I always thought that he would never come home," she said. "At every turn, the door would close. Disappointment has a way of destroying you as a person when you have a loved one in the prison system."