“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
These are the words that sustained Anthony Ray Hinton’s emotional wellbeing as he endured three decades of torture and solitary confinement in the Alabama State Prison system. The passage comes from the Bible, Mark chapter 11, verse 24.
Mr. Hinton was convicted of killing two Alabama fast food restaurant employees in 1985, and referred to by the state prosecutor during his trial as “the most dangerous criminal in the city of Birmingham.” Hinton spent 30 years on death row before he was exonerated and released from jail, just two months ago. Hinton’s conviction had been “sealed” by one piece of evidence — a ballistics test that linked the bullets used in the murders to a gun owned by his mother. Keep in mind that this testimony came from an “expert” witness that had a severe vision impairment and could not demonstrate his ability to operate the apparatus used to compare the bullets while on the stand.
As a graduate coordinator for the African American History Program at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, I had the honor of interviewing Anthony in the summer of 2015. Despite experiencing the precarity of living 30 years at the mercy of a racist criminal justice system, Hinton is still an affable man, maintaining a sense of humor and an openness towards everyone that he encounters. When he speaks to you, he looks into your eyes intently and directly. He is a soft spoken man, but he does not mince his words. He explained that after 30 years on death row, he treasures the ability to look another human being in the eyes, make that person laugh, and earnestly engage in meaningful conversations. In preparing for the interview, I read several news pieces about his case, and I listened to a few of his recorded interviews. For this interview, I wanted to facilitate a space where Mr. Hinton could speak openly and honestly about his life and experiences, both behind and beyond prison walls. I did not want to ask him hackneyed questions that he had already answered before. I wanted to know more about his critiques of the criminal justice system, particularly the ways in which he thought that racial bias affected his case, and others like his.
Mr. Hinton believes that the American criminal justice system cannot be reformed in a way that would eliminate antiblack racial bias from jury selection, prosecution, and sentencing. Despite this poignant critique, he believes that the only way to blunt the genocidal impulse of mass incarceration is to categorically end the death penalty in America. Mr. Hinton described to me that 1/10th of all people that are sentenced to death in the Unites States are exonerated, because in his own words, “It is better to be rich and guilty, than poor and innocent.” Mr. Hinton comes from a lower working class background, and worked as a night laborer in a warehouse when he was arrested and charged with murder. Because of his economic positioning in our society, he could not afford a lawyer that would forcefully and competently argue his case. He was convicted on two counts of capital murder, despite the fact that his supervisor testified that he had watched Hinton complete his nightly work in the factory at the exact times that the murders were being committed. In fact, at Hinton’s job, the warehouse’s doors were locked for every night shift, so workers literally could not leave the premises. With this alibi, how could Mr. Hinton possibly have been convicted?
In the interview, Hinton listed 5 reasons that he believed led to his conviction.
1.) There were 8 white people on the jury, and 5 black people.
2.) The state prosecutor was a white man.
3.) The judge was also a white man.
4.) The murder victims were both white.
5.) His attorney was white.
The confluence of these factors led to 30 years of incarceration on death row for Anthony Ray Hinton. One question that I posed to him was, “why?” His conviction seemed so gratuitous…why would the state work so hard to convict a man for crimes that he obviously did not commit? Hinton explained to me that the prosecutor was running for a local political office, and wanted to use Hinton’s case to gain political capital in the greater Birmingham community. What bothers me most about this, is the unadulterated excess that Hinton was the victim of. His life, the life of his family, and the dynamics of his community were irrevocably shifted by his conviction, merely so that a regional Alabama prosecutor could advance his parochial political ambitions? This lack of moral restraint is indicative of a political system and civil society that believes that Black Lives do not matter, a nation that can only find blackness comprehensible when it’s in relation to excess or death.
Mr. Hinton knows that the only reason that he was convicted is because he is a Black man, a population that the state eagerly uses to satiate its genocidal thirst. He also knows that there will be no accountability for the prosecutor and ballistics expert who lied and misrepresented evidence to secure his conviction. Those are all human beings who have moved on with their lives, decades and lifetimes removed the from the mid-80s prosecution of Anthony Ray Hinton. Meanwhile, Hinton has to piece together fragments of a life that has been irretrievably stolen, after being in a claustrophobic warping of both space and time for 30 years. This is torture. This is genocide. If the Equal Justice Initiative had not intervened with the resources to argue Hinton’s case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, he would have been executed for two murders that he did not commit.
Despite fact that he may never be able to find or fully reconstitute the pieces of his life, Hinton’s faith demands that he continue fighting to recover his life, for “if you believe that you have already received it, it will be yours.”
I hope that I will one day be as compassionate, as resolute, and as strong as Anthony Ray Hinton.