Anthony Ray Hinton spent nearly 30 years in an Alabama prison before having his conviction overturned, and he’s trying to make sure his story becomes one of the last.
That’s part of the reason he wrote the book “The Sun Does Shine: How I found Life and Freedom on Death Row”, that was featured by Oprah’s Book Club in Summer 2018.
Before a book signing Wednesday at the Wilmington Public Library, Hinton told the story of how he became wrongly accused.
In 1985, Birmingham police said two men were killed at a restaurant, and through a line-up, Hinton became the subject of the investigation.
Hinton said as he was being arrested, he was asked whether there was a gun at the house he was living in with his mother. He said while it wasn’t his, it was his mother’s.
“I was asked ‘why did you tell the police about a gun they had no knowledge about?’ I said all my life my mother taught me to always tell the truth. She said if you haven’t done anything, why are you lying? If you didn’t do anything, why would you run? Stand in there, tell the truth. Telling the truth cost me 30 years of my life.”
Those 30 years were the time Hinton spent in prison, a path he was on as he got into the police car to be booked.
“He turned around and looked and me and said ‘do you want to know why?’ I said ‘yes sir.’ He said ‘we’re going to charge you with first degree robbery, first degree kidnapping, and first degree attempted murder.’ I said I hadn’t done any of that. He said ‘let me tell you something right now, I don’t care whether you did or didn’t do it, but I’m going to make sure you’re found guilty.’ I said ‘for a crime I didn’t commit?’ He said ‘you must have a hearing problem; didn’t I just tell you I don’t care if you did or didn’t do it?’
Hinton said it continued.
“He turned back around, and said there were five things that were going to convict you. Number 1, you’re black. Number 2, a white man is going to say you shot it, whether you shot it or not, believe me, I don’t care. Number 3, you’re going to have a white prosecutor, number 4, you’re going to have a white judge, and number 5, you’re going to have an all-white jury.”
Hinton was convicted, and told the crowd at the Wilmington Public Library that the Alabama justice system forced him into a death row cell that was barely longer than his height.
“I wouldn’t like nothing better than to tell you tonight that the state of Alabama made an honest mistake. I wouldn’t like nothing better than to tell you that race had nothing to do with me spending 30 years in a 5x7 (prison cell). But I come here to tell you the truth: The state of Alabama didn’t make an honest mistake. The state of Alabama knew what it was doing, and race and class had everything to do with me spending 30 years in a 5x7.”
Hinton spent that time on death row, which for a while was in a cell near Henry Hays. After developing a relationship despite not being able to see each other from their cells, Hinton was invited by Hayes to be with him in his final hours, which showed Hinton’s resolve to stay alive.
“I said Henry, you’re ready to die. That’s all you want, an 8 oz. steak? What I want, they’re going to have to go out in the forest and get it, and when they bring it back, I’m going to say that’s not what I ordered. Then they’ll have to go back to the forest, and everything they come back the same thing. Henry, there’s a law that says I can’t be executed until I eat my last meal. I said Henry I’ll be here forever, because nothing they bring will be what I want.”
Ultimately, Hinton’s appeals went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was judged evidence in his case was flawed, and he was let go.
That didn’t erase three decades of memories behind prison walls, and Hinton said it’s made him become an advocate for prison reform.
“All of you who are political, I’m going to let you have that term mass incarceration. I’m going to tell you what I truly know it to be: we have a new form of slavery in this country. You don’t want to talk about it, but I will, because I was enslaved for 30 years, I have a right to talk about it.”
Hinton now travels around signing his book, telling his story, and trying to push pressure on prosecutors to focus on being accurate, and not just building up conviction counts.
“I want you to know that justice is not blind. I want you to know, that every day in this country, millions of men and women go to prison, because someone in America is making a lot of money, off of slavery.”
You can read more of Anthony Ray Hinton’s story in his book “The Sun Does Shine: How I found Life and Freedom on Death Row.”