For 30 years, Anthony Ray Hinton sat on death row for a crime he didn’t commit — 30 years of “pure hell,” as he described it.
Hinton was a special guest and speaker at 442 Orange St. on Tuesday evening for an event honoring the innocent on death row hosted by Jewish society Shabtai. The night also featured speakers Connecticut Commissioner of Corrections Scott Semple and Rabbi Sholom Lipskar of the Aleph Institute, which provides services for Jewish prisoners around the globe. Tuesday evening marked the Jewish holiday of Yud Tes Kislev — the anniversary of the czar of Russia’s exoneration of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, who founded the Chabad movement in 1798. With hundreds of guests filling the room, dinner was served and the evening concluded with a farbrengen — a traditional Jewish celebration featuring songs and biblical readings.
Hinton was arrested on a July afternoon in 1985 while mowing the lawn at home in Alabama. He didn’t know why, and only at the station did the police officers tell him: He was charged with two counts of capital murder — a charge based completely on the state’s assertion, later proven to be false, that the victims were killed with a revolver that belonged to Hinton’s mother.
Hinton, who was 29 years old at the time, maintained his innocence. However, he was convicted later that year and sentenced to death.
“I wish, tonight, I could look you in the eye and tell you that the state of Alabama made an honest mistake. I wish I could look you in the eye and tell you that race had nothing to do with me spending 30 years in a 5-by-7,” said Hinton, who is black.
When he was arrested, Birmingham newspapers touted that the police had caught the “worst killer that ever walked the streets,” he remembered.
During the first three of the 30 years in his 5-by-7 prison cell, Hinton did not say a word to another human being, he said. In the following decades, Hinton realized that his “mind had to leave” and could go “wherever he wanted to go.” So, he began to imagine himself speaking to Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace about Prince Harry and Prince William. He imagined his marriage with Halle Berry — who, in his head, was his wife for 16 years, he said, laughing.
Hinton began a book club with six other men on death row. One of those men was Henry Hays, a white prisoner, who he later learned was a Ku Klux Klan member on death row for beating and killing Michael Donald, a young African-American man. When Hinton confronted Hays, asking him “Henry, why didn’t you tell me?” Hinton said that he thinks Hays felt shame for the first time. Hinton made Hays know that he was not angry because he felt that everyone deserves compassion. In the book club, Hays read his first book by a black author, James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” according to Hinton.
When Hays was executed, his last words were, “All of my life, my father, my mother, my community taught me to hate. The very people that they taught me to hate were the ones who taught me to love,” said Hinton.
Hinton’s first attorney told him that he could get Hinton life without parole, but Hinton turned him away.
“I needed someone who believed in me,” he said.
So Hinton wrote a letter to attorney Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson fought 16 years to free Hinton.
When Stevenson told Hinton that he would be getting top experts to testify on his behalf, Hinton asked for the experts to be white Southern males.
“The South can only recognize a white Southern man,” Hinton said.
Three of the nation’s top firearm examiners testified in 2002 that the revolver did not match with the evidence of the crime. Still, a new trial was not granted. It took 12 years of litigation, and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 — where a decision to reopen the case was unanimously granted — until the Alabama Department of Forensic Scientists retested the weapons, which confirmed that the bullets from the crime scene did not match with the weapon of Hinton’s mother. The Jefferson County district attorney’s office dropped the case, and Hinton walked out of the Jefferson County Jail after 30 years at 9:30 a.m. on April 3, 2015.
“When I came out of prison that day, it was as if the sun was shining brighter than it ever had before,” Hinton said.
Mr. Hinton is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1983.
To this day, more than three years after his exoneration, Hinton has not received compensation for the 30 years behind bars. Hinton said that in those three years, “No one in the state of Alabama has had the decency to even apologize.”
“I tried my best to believe that Alabama has come too far to let race be why they haven’t apologized, but that’s the only thing I can come up with,” Hinton said through tears.
“I believe corrections systems are chaos unless there is hope,” Semple, who has worked for 30 years in the Connecticut state system.
He added that he believes that the nation overincarcerates and oversentences.
Lipskar of the Aleph Institute spoke of the “tragedy” of imprisonment, meditating not only on the negative effects on those who are incarcerated, but also incarceration’s collateral damage.
Hinton’s memoir “The Sun Does Shine” was released on March 27, 2018.
Sammy Westfall | firstname.lastname@example.org