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Gary Drinkard

Exoneree Name

State: Alabama

Convicted: 1995

Exonerated: 2001

Race: Caucasian

DNA used in exoneration? No

Reasons for wrongful conviction:

False accusation

Inadequate legal defense

Prosecutorial misconduct


Gary's Wrongful Conviction

Gary Drinkard spent close to six years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit. After he was exonerated in 2001, he has attended college, worked as a laborer and as a Peer Specialist for Witness to Innocence, supporting fellow exonerated death row survivors as they navigate living in the world after exoneration. Gary contributes his gentle yet powerful voice as a speaker in the movement to abolish the death penalty, traveling throughout the US and overseas to share his story of wrongful conviction and incarceration on death row.

Gary had turned his life around after some troubles in his youth, was married and raising three children and living a quiet life in a home they had purchased. I'd had enough of prison. I just, you know, straightened my life up. I put it in my mind, well I need to get married…have some kids, settle down and you know, have some type of responsibility That's what I did and started working construction work. Went through school. where they train you to be a carpenter…I was making good money. Then I got hurt on the job. The accident left him debilitated, but they were making ends meet and enjoying normalcy as a happy family when his life was suddenly turned upside down.

We bought some land fixed and build our dream home. I went to college, fixing to start a new vocation, you know, so I could have some work, studying sleep disorders, polysomnographic technology. I was fixing to start the fall quarter when one night, the door burst open, I had a dog, half chow and half pit bull…they sprayed him with a fire extinguisher and he run off, but they busted the door down, threw my wife and I on the floor and handcuffed us. The arrest was violent and Gary and his family were frightened and disoriented. One officer held a gun to their nine-year old son’s face, leaving a bruise. They forced his teenaged daughter and her friends to leave a back bedroom without allowing them to get fully dressed. The police were ostensibly there for a minor marijuana charge, but Gary and his wife were questioned about a murder they knew nothing about— the robbery and murder of a 65-year-old automotive junk dealer in Decatur, Alabama.

Gary and his wife insisted on his innocence—he had been home at the time of the murders and because of his debilitating back injury, he rarely went out and had limited physical agility. Unable to afford an attorney, he was assigned two lawyers with no experience trying criminal cases. The case against him rested primarily on testimony by Gary’s half-sister and her common-law husband, both facing charges for unrelated crimes that would be dismissed in exchange for their testimony against Gary. His court-appointed lawyers did the bare minimum to defend him, for example, not bothering to bring up that a dog breeder and her boyfriend had been with Gary at his home the night of the murders. She had recorded the visit on her calendar, as was her practice, so she could register the puppies. They're not public defenders, they're appointed attorneys and they have to live in that community. They have to live with a judge. And I can understand it to a point, but it's not right. They're supposed to give you the best defense possible and they don't do that. Further, Gary was still on strong medication for his injury and was encouraged to stay on it, which left him feeling foggy and unable to help his lawyers with details that would have proven his innocence.

Gary was stunned when he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995…when they convicted me, it was a shock. It was a bad shock. And I'm going to death row and thinking this is the worst of the worst. For a while, the conditions were not as bad as he expected. Unlike other death rows, at the time Alabama allowed contact visits with loved ones, goody packages from home and the inmates were allowed out to exercise in groups of 30 or 40. That later changed, but what did not change was the closeness that developed between the people sharing the common experience of facing execution, being written off by society as unredeemable. The whole time I was on death row, there was never a fight, never a fight. But being on death row in Alabama, it, it was bad enough because you had to see your friends go around there and die…we'd pound on the bars probably 10 minutes before the time to execute them and probably five minutes afterwards, you know to say, hey brother, we love you. You know, we know you're going and there's somebody here thinking about you.

His own traumatic experience facing execution as an innocent man changed Gary’s mind about the death penalty. Before I ever got into this mess, I wasn’t against the death penalty. I believed if someone was to kill a child or a woman, you know, they should be killed. He grew to understand the reality that capital punishment does not work as a deterrent and does not offer closure for victim’s family members. If you want justice, you can punish a person by keeping them in there for the rest of the life. If you kill them, you're giving them an out. They don't suffer any longer. He also knows first-hand the risk of executing an innocent person – The National Academy of Sciences estimates that four percent of people on death row are innocent.

Although Gary nearly lost hope that he would ever be exonerated, so much so that he told his wife to find someone else to help care for their children, he did not give up trying to prove his innocence, knowing the devastation his execution would have on his family, especially his children. He reached out to Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative for help with his case. In 2000, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct, and with the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights, Gary won an acquittal in 2001. The Center later represented Gary before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee to illustrate the urgent need for competent lawyers for those facing the death penalty.

Gary's Work Today

Today, Gary lives and works in Alabama. His wife did marry someone else, but they all remain close friends. He is active in the movement to abolish the death penalty, including speaking to prosecutors, judges and law enforcement professionals as a speaker for the Witness to Innocence Accuracy and Justice program. He speaks with candor and compassion to his audiences, from colleges to churches to judges, prosecutors and police officers, and is active in lobbying for death penalty abolition in states across the country.

Writing poetry and reading helped Gary deal with his anger and depression, as well as human contact through visitors and penpals. You can't let your mind dwell on death row… I would live through my pen pals. I would get their letters. They would be telling me stories, send me photos and I would be at therapy, at their home with them eating dinner, going places, you know, taking pictures. Or when I was reading a book, I would be inside that book, wherever that was at, I'd be in fantasy land.

The system is broken, he says. I don’t think the death penalty is appropriate for anyone. God is the only one who has the right to take a life.


  • "Richard Jaffe explores the problems of the American death penalty system through his experience as a capital defense attorney in Alabama."

  • Jaffe secured the release of both Gary Drinkard and Randal Padgett.

In The Media:

#ImLivingProof... that we send the Innocent to die.


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