A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Freed from death row: Gary Drinkard, wrongly convicted of murder, shares story with Kentuckians

By Mary Kuhlman
Public News Service

Convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, Gary Drinkard spent six years on death row before the truth was revealed. Yesterday, he was in Kentucky to talk about his experience.

Drinkard was sentenced to the death for a 1993 Alabama murder and was eventually exonerated due to prosecutorial misconduct. He may be a free man now, but Drinkard explained the capital murder conviction shattered his relationships with his family and have made it difficult to find a decent job.

There are at least 30 people on death row at the Kentucky State Penitentiary. (Photo from Midnight Believer/Flickr, via PNS)

“The cost of it overall extremely outweighs keeping a person in prison for life,” Drinkard said. “And like one of our members said, you can release a man from jail, but you can’t dig him out of a grave, an innocent person. And there’s a lot more innocent people on death row – I mean, people don’t realize it, but there are.”

A total of 164 people in the U.S. have been exonerated from death row, including Larry Osborne of Kentucky.

Drinkard spoke at the Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Hazard Monday evening at an event that was free and open to the public.

As a volunteer with Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Helen Brunty pointed out 30 states still use the death penalty – down from 37 in 2004.

“We’re moving away from the death penalty across the United States. And studies indicate that the elimination of the death penalty actually reduces crime rather than the opposite,” Brunty said. “It’s a cruel and unusual punishment; there is no humane way to kill somebody.”

Brunty said she also believes the use of capital punishment in the criminal justice system is deeply flawed.

“It is not a deterrent,” she said. “It is unfair to minorities and the poor because they can’t afford someone to defend them, and therefore, they’re wrongly convicted sometimes.”

Drinkard shares his experience as part of “Witness to Innocence” tours around the country. He said he thinks most people don’t realize how false convictions are ruining innocent lives.

“Amazingly enough, people don’t know. They think if you’re accused of something, you had to do something,” Drinkard said. “They ought to have an open mind when it comes to it, instead just believing that the powers that be – the police officers and the prosecutors – because anything that involves politics, there’s corruption.”

More than 2,700 people are on death row in U.S. prisons, including more than 30 in Kentucky.

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