A group of faith leaders from across the country invited by Sojourners, an evangelical organization, sat spellbound this week at the Equal Justice Initiative as a man who sat on Death Row for 30 years for a crime he did not commit told his story. The room was silent except for the sniffles that resulted from tears which could not be contained.
Anthony Ray Hinton was 29 years old when, in 1985 his life changed forever. His mother had asked him to cut the lawn at their home; the two lived together in a residence near Birmingham, Alabama, and Hinton begrudgingly acquiesced to his mother’s request. As he mowed the lawn, he noticed two white men drive up to his house, park their car, and get out. It was strange; white people didn’t often just show up in the black part of town.
“They came up to me,” Hinton said to the group of faith leaders, “and asked me if I was Anthony Ray Hinton. I said, “yes, sir,” and they said I was under arrest.” Hinton recalled being surprised. He had done nothing wrong; he knew that, so although he was caught off guard at being arrested, he was fairly sure that the confusion would be cleared up shortly and he could get back to his life. He had no idea, however, of how life had just thrown him a curve ball that would shatter life as he had known it.
They took Hinton to the unmarked car in which they had driven and put him inside, handcuffed. Hinton continued to ask what he had done, and the police officer ignored him for several minutes. When he finally answered, he said that Hinton was being charged with first degree capital murder. Two people at a fast food restaurant had been shot and killed, and another injured. Hinton objected; he had done no such thing, but the officer was unmoved.
“He said I probably hadn’t done it but that he didn’t care,” Hinton said. There were a total of five charges being thrown at Hinton. In addition to the two murders, there was a charge of attempted murder (another person had been shot but had survived) and two robbery charges. “That officer turned to me and said, “You’re going to be convicted, boy. Do you know why? Because you’re black. Because you’re poor. Because the prosecutor will be white. Because the jury will be white. And because the judge will be white.”
The officer was correct. Hinton went to trial. He was appointed an attorney by the court, and, Hinton remembers, the young white man said to him upon meeting him, “I didn’t go to law school to try pro-Bono cases.” Already things were looking bad for Hinton, who, by the way, had been at work when the shootings occurred. His mother’s gun was said by the State to have been the murder weapon; a forensics “expert” had no experience in doing ballistics, did not know how to use the machine used for ballistics testing, and could not see. The all-white jury, in the court presided over by the white judge, supported the case presented by the white prosecutor who had been accused of shoddy work and unjust practices in cases involving black people in the past…and found Hinton guilty and he was sentenced to death.
At first he was too stunned to really conceptualize what had happened to him. “I kept wondering how an innocent man could be in prison sentenced to death,” he said. It didn’t make sense. What he held onto was a faith and the hope that the truth would come out. He meditated on what he said became his favorite scripture, Mark 11:24, which says, “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayers, believe that you have received it, and it shall be yours.”
And so he prayed. Fifteen years into his sentence, he heard of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson’s organization has a legacy of unearthing injustice in the justice system which puts too many people of color, and too many children, in prison for life or sentenced to die. Stevenson had heard of Hinton’s case, and when he was contacted, decided to take the case on after talking with his newest client.
It was imperative, Hinton knew, to prove that the bullets that killed the two men could not have come from his mother’s gun. He was sure that if that case could be made, no court would deny him justice. He says he told Stevenson, “I know attorneys don’t like for clients to tell them what to do, but I want you to get a ballistics expert.”
Stevenson smiled and said he had every intention of doing that.
But Hinton stopped him. “No,” he said. “You don’t understand. I want you to get three ballistics experts. I want them to be white men. I want them to be from the South. And I want them to be for the death penalty.” Stevenson paused as he considered the brilliance and the wisdom of what Hinton was asking, and knew it was the right strategy. He agreed; he got three ballistics experts, two from Texas and one from Virginia. All three concluded that the bullets that killed the two men did not come from – could not have come from – Hinton’s mother’s gun.
Stevenson and his client thought they were in the fast lane to justice …but they were wrong. For 16 years, every court to which Stevenson presented the new and compelling evidence denied Hinton a new trial. It finally came to the fork in the road that led to the United States Supreme Court. Stevenson told Hinton that if the nation’s highest court didn’t rule in their favor, it would be rough going from then on out.
The Supreme Court did, however, rule in Hinton’s favor and overturned his conviction and granted him a new trial. The Alabama court system, however, decided not to pursue the case, and after 30 years sitting on Death Row in a tiny cell with only a bed and a toilet, cooped up for 23 hours a day, Hinton was released in April of 2015.
We the faith leaders listened in awe. In spite of his horrific experience, Hinton made jokes (he said his sense of humor, plus his faith, helped him survive.) He talked about how he still sleeps in a fetal position, though he has purchased a king-sized bed, because for 30 years, he had to sleep like that on a bed that was too short for his 6’4” frame. He shared how he still gets up at 3 a.m. because on Death Row, breakfast is at 3 a.m. every day. He talked about how his imagination, in addition to his faith, kept him alive and lucid.
He attributed his freedom, so long coming, to God. God, he said, sent Bryan Stevenson. God knew…and God came to him.
“I am a Job,” he said, referring to the Biblical character who suffered unjustly. “I know for a fact that there is a God who sits high and looks low.”
The purpose of the retreat convened by Sojourners was to immerse faith leaders in issues of injustice inherent in mass incarceration, child sentencing, and policing. Hinton’s story was the spear thrust into preconceptions and misconceptions that many faith leaders see deal with in their work in churches and other ministries.
Hinton’s story served as a reminder that “the least of these” are in front of us, under the guise of justice. As Hinton finished his story, wiping tears from his eyes, so did we, the faith leaders, as we stood on our feet to applaud – his survival, his stubborn, crazy faith …and the reminder that their work to fight injustice is every before us.
A candid observation …