Finley: Man jailed 43 years has paid his debt

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Abner Hines rolled the dice twice when he was 21 years old. Both times they came up craps.

The first gamble the laid-off autoworker took was to join four of his buddies in knocking off a Detroit liquor store.

The plan was carefully drawn. One of the robbers was a friend of the store owner’s stepson, who told them where they would find his guns. All they needed to do was get to the weapons before the owner did, grab the money and run. Nobody gets hurt.

Except one of the gang stayed back when the others fled. Outside, Hines heard a gunshot. The owner was dead on the floor. And Abner Hines and crew were headed to jail.

That was in 1974, six years before the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the state’s practice of charging accessories to a murder with the same offense as the person who did the actual killing.

So Hines and the others were all charged with first-degree felony murder. That’s when he tossed the bones again, declining a plea bargain and deciding to fight the murder charge.

“He was young,” says his current attorney, Tim Doman. “He didn’t pull the trigger. He had no intent to hurt anyone. He met with his attorney just once before deciding to take his chances in court.”

The shooter was convicted of first-degree murder and given life in prison. The others pleaded guilty in exchange for lighter sentences.

Hines, found guilty by a jury, came away with the same time as the murderer — life without parole. Locked up in 1975, he has been behind bars ever since. He’s 64 now, and sitting in the Coldwater Correctional Facility.

No one is suggesting Hines is innocent. He admits his participation in the crime that left Leonard McNeal, the store owner, dead.

But had that offense been committed just a few years later, Hines would likely have faced an armed robbery charge, or something lesser, under the new Michigan criminal code.

Given his relatively clean record, he probably would have received no more than 15 years.

Instead, he has spent nearly every day of his adult life in a prison cell, with no hope of ever getting out.

Still, he’s earned his GED, associate degree and bachelor’s degree. And while he had some rough stretches during his 20s, Doman says for 30 years Hines has been a model prisoner.

“He’s been there 43 years,” Doman says. “He’s remorseful. He’s ready to return to society.”

That return is a long shot. Hines exhausted all of his appeals decades ago. His only hope now rests with the mercy of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has the power to commute his sentence and set him free.

Doman is preparing the commutation request now. It will go to the parole board, which will decide whether to send it on to the governor with a release recommendation.

Except for Jennifer Granholm, who freed 182 prisoners, Michigan governors have been stingy with pardons and commutations.

Snyder has granted a few early releases for medical reasons. John Engler commuted 34 sentences, and Jim Blanchard just six.

The most likely outcome is that Abner Hines will die in prison for a really stupid mistake he made when he was a very young man. Unless this time the dice gods favor him.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

Catch The Nolan Finley Show weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.