RALEIGH — On one of the hottest days in July 1985 in Birmingham, Alabama, Anthony Ray Hinton was cutting the grass at his mother’s house for about 25 minutes when the then 29-year-old saw two white men he had never seen walking toward him.
“I cut the mower off and asked them how can I help you?,” he explained. “They said they had a warrant for my arrest. I asked what for and the Birmingham police detectives said they would tell me later and then they handcuffed me.”
Thus would begin a 30-year odyssey for Hinton, who was eventually wrongfully tried and convicted on two counts of capital murder in the unsolved slayings of two fast-food restaurant managers based solely on the testimony of state of Alabama ballistics experts, who claimed the crime bullets came from a dusty revolver found in Hinton’s mother’s closet.
“When we got to the jail, I asked them again, why am I being arrested?.” he said. “We are going to charge you with first-degree robbery, first-degree murder, kidnapping … I said I didn’t do it, He said I don’t care whether you did or didn’t do it, you are going to be convicted. Five things are going to convict you: You are a black man, a white man is going to say you shot him, you are going to have a white prosecutor, a white judge and white jury. And he repeated the words conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.”
Hinton shared his experiences, including his eventual release by the State of Alabama that dropped the charges eight years ago based on new evidence secured by attorneys with the Equal Justice Initiative, with students, faculty, staff and invited guests at a presentation on Wednesday.
Dean J. Rich Leonard thanked law school Professors Lisa Lukasik, Jon Powell and Suzanna Geiser and Vice Dean Raven Byrne along with a group of students and now alumni, who worked to bring Hinton to the law school for the day. In addition to giving a formal evening presentation to the school, Hinton also had lunch with a number of Pro Bono Project students as well as dinner following the event. Campbell Law’s Black Law Student Association (BLSA) President Nikkia Jacques ‘24 introduced Hinton to the crowd of more than 120 gathered at the law school.
Hinton, who was at work during the time the fast-food managers were killed, felt confident the detectives would discover they had made a mistake once they talked to his white supervisor, who would vouch for his whereabouts. “I knew when I asked the detective the time and date when the crime was committed, I knew at the time I was at work so I knew when he talked to my white supervisor and he knew they would have made a mistake.”
Instead, despite telling Hinton the detectives believed he did not commit the crime, they still charged him with the murders. His court-appointed lawyer told Hinton he did not go to law school to do pro bono work. “I asked him, would it matter if I didn’t do it? And he said, that is what you all always say,” Hinton recalled. “The lawyer did exactly enough to get me convicted on two counts of capital murder.”
Hinton was sentenced to death and placed in solitary confinement on death row, where he would eventually experience 54 executions held near his cell. He would become one of the longest-serving death row prisoners in Alabama history and among the longest-serving condemned prisoners to be freed after presenting evidence of innocence. Hinton was the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1983.
Hinton eventually wrote to attorney Bryan Stephenson, founder of EJI and the author of the best-seller “Just Mercy,” which was played out in a movie starring Michael B. Jordan. Hinton’s character was portrayed by O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the 2019 film. Stephenson, whom Hinton describes as his best friend, took on Hinton’s case writing, “No one I have represented has inspired me more than Anthony Ray Hinton.”
It took 16 years for the attorneys at EJI to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to unanimously vacate Hinton’s conviction and the State of Alabama to drop the charges against Hinton, who went on to write, “The Sun Does Shine: How I found life, freedom, and justice,” which went on to become an Oprah Book Club pick and a New York Times bestseller.
“All that time, I lived in a 5X7 room with a death sentence over my head all because of my race,” Hinton said. “They finally dropped the charges on April 3, 2015. For the first time in 30 long years, I was let go but I cannot tell you that I am free. I will never be free because of the system. I didn’t ask to be born black just like you didn’t ask to be born white. We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”
Eight years after his release, Hinton says no one from the State of Alabama, the prosecutor’s office nor the judge have apologized to him nor has he been compensated for his wrongful imprisonment.
“Every morning and every night, I have to live with the fact I lost 30 years of my life,” he explained. “People say isn’t that the price we pay to have a judicial system? I ask you, is that what you would say if it was your father, brother, son? We should never allow that to happen. Today the state of Alabama is doing business as usual because we don’t have enough lawyers to take on death penalty cases.”
Hinton continued, “I stop by here tonight to put all my money on young lawyers that there is a new day coming. I want you to go to law school and pass the bar. I want you to every time you represent someone you, promise you will give them your best. I live in a state where the justice system is broken. We are not dealing with mass incarceration, we are dealing with a new slavery. I am not against punishment, I am against putting men and women in prison who didn’t do anything.”
He added, “I stand here tonight, not because I enjoy telling that story. I tell that story so that you will join me to end the death penalty and help me reform the justice system. We need to get rid of bad DAs and career politicians. I want you to know the tears you saw coming down my face is a sign of strength. Everyday someone asks me how are you able to forgive? I forgive those men because I choose to forgive. I choose to live the best life I can live. I can never look back; I can only look forward.”
Hinton, who now works as an EJI community educator in Birmingham, told the law students he needs them to help him change America’s justice system.
“I did not let the State of Alabama kill me or who I was,” he concluded. “I believe with every fiber of my being my mother taught me that life might not always be fair, but you be fair to life. I am thankful to Campbell for giving me this opportunity and I am counting on every one of you young men and women, who … are willing to ride with me to change this system. It is time for a change.”
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