Hinton, set free after 30 years, speaks of life after death row

Posted 5/17/19

DORA — Anthony Ray Hinton of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) challenged Dora High School students to go home Wednesday night and spend 30 minutes in their bathroom with only a book and their …

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Hinton, set free after 30 years, speaks of life after death row


DORA — Anthony Ray Hinton of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) challenged Dora High School students to go home Wednesday night and spend 30 minutes in their bathroom with only a book and their thoughts for company.

"If you can sit there for 30 minutes, I would like you to imagine being in that same bathroom for 30 years. If you can imagine being there for 30 years, imagine being there for something that you didn't do," said Hinton, a Quinton resident who lived under the shadow of a death sentence from 1986 until 2015 after being convicted for two murders he did not commit. 

Hinton's memoir, "The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row" became a New York Times bestseller after being published last year and is currently being made into a movie by Oprah Winfrey.

Hinton warned students that they are inheriting a justice system that favors the rich who are guilty over the poor who are innocent and referred to the nation's trend of mass incarceration as "a new form of slavery."

"For every African American young man sitting in these bleachers, you stand a chance of going into slavery because of this broken system. Don't let the fact that you're a star athlete or the fact that you go to college fool you," said Hinton, who added that white students in the crowd were also in danger of losing their freedom at the hands of the state.

According to the EJI's website, 151 people were exonerated in 2018, with a record number involving misconduct by police or prosecutors. There have been more than 2,300 exonerations since 1989.

Hinton, 62, was cutting grass at the home he shared with his mother when two white detectives from the Birmingham Police Department came to arrest him in 1985.

What he did not know at the time was that the survivor of a restaurant robbery that mirrored others in which two fast food managers had been killed had picked his photo out of a lineup.

Hinton was handcuffed without being informed of the charges. On the ride to jail, Hinton answered honestly when asked if he owned a gun; he did not but his mother did. 

The detectives quickly returned to the house and asked for the gun, which prosecutors  claimed at trial matched bullets found at the crime scene.

The original charges against Hinton were first-degree robbery, first-degree kidnapping and attempted murder.

Hinton repeatedly professed his innocence from the moment of his arrest, but one of the detectives told him that a conviction was inevitable for five reasons.

"He said, 'Number one, you're black. Number two, a white man is going to say you shot him. Number three, you're going to have a white prosecutor. Number four, you're going to have a white judge, and number five, you're going to have an all-white jury,'" Hinton recalled.

Though Hinton could prove that he was at work during the time of the crime, the original charges were dropped and replaced with two counts of capital murder.

His court-appointed attorney introduced himself by saying that he hadn't gone to law school to work pro bono and shrugged off his pleas of innocence by insisting that "y'all," meaning people of color, were constantly committing crimes and not taking responsibility.

Hinton was 29 years old in 1986 when he was convicted and sentenced to die by electrocution.

After spending his first years at Holman Correctional Facility stewing in anger at his accusers and at God, he began to open up to his fellow prisoners after hearing a man in the next cell crying. The man was upset because he had just learned of the death of his mother.

During his years on Death Row, Hinton started a book club for prisoners and formed an unlikely friendships with Henry Hays, a Ku Klux Klan member who participated in the murder of a 19-year-old African American man in 1981. 

Hays was electrocuted in 1997. At the end of his life, Hays expressed regret for harboring the hate that had been instilled in him since his birth.

Hinton's case was eventually taken up by the EJI, founded in 1989 to represent prisoners who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused.

According to EJI's website, Hinton is among 158 people overall and nine from Alabama who have been released from death row since 1973. Nationally, one person is exonerated for every nine people executed.

At one point, Hinton refused to accept a deal that would have ensured him life without parole.

"I said, 'I would prefer to die than to admit to something that I didn't do,'" Hinton said.

EJI founder Bryan Stevenson, whom Hinton called "God's best lawyer," eventually took a personal interest in the case.

At Hinton's request, Stevenson secured three top ballistics experts who testified in 2002 that the bullets used in the crimes did not match the gun taken from Hinton's mother. Hinton remained on death row for another decade because state prosecutors would not reexamine the case. 

In 2014, the U.S Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Hinton's trial lawyer had been constitutionally deficient and directed state courts to determine if he was entitled to a new trial.  

"I wish I could look you in the eye this morning and tell you that the state of Alabama made an honest mistake but it did not. The prosecution knew from day one that I was not the person who had committed the crime," Hinton said.

Hinton was transferred from Holman to Jefferson County Jail, where he regained his freedom on April 3, 2015, after charges against him were dismissed.

He has never received an apology from the state, though he has forgiven those who wronged him so that he can live in peace.

In 2018, the state Finance Department and Attorney General's Office opposed compensating Hinton, which state law does allow for those who have been wrongfully convicted. In light of such opposition, members of the Senate's Finance and Taxation Committee delayed a vote on legislation that would have awarded Hinton $1.5 million.