Lady Justice stands tall with a blindfold draped across her eyes, objectively weighing all the evidence presented to her in court. Her sword reiterates the power behind the law that acts not out of fear, but out of a responsibility to protect the people. This image stands as a well-known symbol of our judicial system in America. This image, however, is far from the reality Anthony Ray Hinton encountered in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1985. His story of imprisonment sheds a light on the disgrace and racial biases clouding our criminal justice system. Anthony Ray Hinton finally walked out of Holman Prison in 2015, after thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit. While his experience shows the despair found within a death row prison, it also exemplifies the strength of the human spirit to not only survive but to truly live and make meaning of one’s situation, no matter the circumstances.
In July of 1985, twenty-nine-year old Anthony Ray Hinton was working on his mother’s lawn, when two police officers approached him with a gun to inform him he was under arrest (Hinton, 45). At the police station, Anthony was finally informed of his charges: first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery, and first-degree attempted murder (Hinton, 51). There was only one problem: Anthony had never committed a violent act before in his life. During the particular time of the crime, Anthony was working the night shift at Bruno’s Warehouse. Ten minutes after he clocked in, a white man was robbed and shot in a town fifteen miles away (Hinton, 51). The victim survived and identified Anthony’s photo as the culprit despite not having any eye witnesses (Winfrey, “Anthony Ray Hinton, Part 1: Freedom After 30 Years on Death Row”). In order to commit this crime, Anthony would have had to climb over a fifteen-foot fence, sneak past his supervisor, still somehow finish all the tasks assigned to him that night, and then slip back unnoticed to finish his shift which ended at six in the morning (Hinton, 63).
Anthony knew his white supervisor would testify he was at Bruno’s Warehouse during the time of the crime, along with the other employees with whom he was working. He figured his freedom would be restored in just a few hours once the police station sorted everything out and realized they had the wrong man. Instead of recognizing their mistake, the police instead linked Anthony to two other unrelated murders (Hinton, 50). The white sheriff, Lieutenant Acker, made it clear that Anthony’s solid alibi did not matter. To the sheriff, it was just another poor black man off the streets of Alabama. Lieutenant Acker told him, “You know, I don’t care whether you did or didn’t do it. In fact, I believe you didn’t do it. But it doesn’t matter. If you didn’t do it, one of your brothers did. And you’re going to take the rap. You want to know why? Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man gonna say you shot him. Number three, you’re gonna have a white district attorney. Number four, you’re gonna have a white judge. And number five, you’re gonna have an all-white jury” (Hinton, 52).
The police officer suggested all black males were equally culpable of this kind of crime, so it wouldn’t matter which specific one the court decided to punish. Presumptions of guilt allow those in power to pry on the most vulnerable among our society. Lieutenant Acker is not the only one guilty of this behavior because implicit racial biases are institutionalized. The United States holds the highest rate of incarceration in the world when one out of every three black males born, is predicted to be incarcerated (Stevenson, 15). Anthony Ray Hinton became just another one of these statistics as Lieutenant Acker’s racist insinuation accurately foreshadowed his trial. The white lawyer, jury, and judge looked down in front of them at the 220-pound poor black man with little social mobility and quickly saw the monstrous villain the State of Alabama was painting him to be. It didn’t matter that his polygraph test proved his innocence or that the gun linked to the crime had not been fired in over twenty-five years. Anthony’s life was declared not worthy of living anymore as he was sentenced to death row to die by electrocution (Hinton, 78).
In his memoir, The Sun Does Shine, Anthony argues that justice is not blind. He says, “But justice is a funny thing, and in Alabama, justice isn’t blind. She knows the color of your skin, your education level, and how much money you have in the bank” (6). Anthony lacked the financial means to defend himself. In the criminal justice system wealth, not culpability, is what plays the key factor in determining a man’s fate (Winfrey, “Bryan Stevenson: The Power of Mercy and Forgiveness”). Anthony’s original defense attorney claimed the one-thousand-dollar paycheck he was receiving to defend Anthony wasn’t even sufficient enough to cover his breakfast bill (Hinton, 7). Anthony’s low financial status resulted in an uninterested and unmotivated lawyer, despite the trial being a matter of a man’s life or death. Money often motivates a man more than fighting for humanity does. The criminal justice system is supposed to defend and support people of all different social and economic backgrounds the same. Our broken system shelters the strong and uses power and privilege in a vicious cycle to abuse the weak.
Anthony began to open up and form personal connections with the other inmates. He connected especially with Henry, the man in the cell next to him, as they began to converse on their favorite foods, books, and memories from home. It wasn’t until much later that Anthony discovered why his closest friend was on death row. Henry Rays, along with a couple other white men, had lynched a nineteen-year-old black boy named Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981 (Hinton, 135). Henry’s father was the head of the KKK and had ordered him to murder the first black man he encountered. Henry was the first white man convicted of lynching in eighty-five years so his sentencing was a statement (Oprah, “Anthony Ray Hinton, Part 2: Finding Life, Home, and Redemption on Death Row”).
On Oprah’s podcast series, Anthony explained that sending Henry to die was the wrong statement. Men were capable of doing horrible things, but killing a man did not erase those mistakes. It only added more pain, shame, and evil to the world. Anthony truly believed every man among them was more than the worst thing they had ever done. In his acclaimed novel, Just Mercy,Bryan Stevenson says, “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, do we deserve to kill” (313)? One out of every ten men on death row is innocent (Hinton, 243). We cannot justify killing nine men for their crimes, at the cost of the one innocent man among them who has done nothing wrong but fall victim to a system. We have this misconception that every person in our criminal justice system is somehow deserving of being there. We have been “corrupted with the politics of fear and anger” as we allow this anger to justify how the incarcerated are treated (Winfrey, “Bryan Stevenson: The Power of Mercy and Forgiveness”).
Well renowned criminal defense attorney, Bryan Stevenson, finally took Anthony’s case after Anthony had spent a decade inside Holman Prison. Bryan worked with the Equal Justice Initiative for sixteen hard years on Anthony’s case (Winfrey, “Bryan Stevenson: The Power of Mercy and Forgiveness”). In 2014, the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned Anthony Ray Hinton’s conviction (U.S. Congress). Because of Bryan Stevenson’s relentless hard work, Anthony was finally able to walk out of Holman Prison and feel the sun on his face after thirty years locked behind bars. Anthony has now spent the last five years trying to navigate through a world that has drastically changed and moved on without him.
We are a country founded on slavery yet rooted in freedom. These contrasting values allowed Anthony Ray Hinton to spend 10,950 days locked in a five by seven cell, smelling the death of his peers, and awaiting the death of his own for a crime he did not commit. This man is not the only one wrongfully incarcerated. Since 1973, over 158 people have been released from death row after being declared innocent (U.S. Congress). It would be a dishonor to suggest equality thrives under our nation when cases like Anthony Ray Hinton still exist. Unfortunately, no apology or compensation has yet to be given to Anthony for the thirty years the State of Alabama took from him (“2016: Life After Death Row”). No amount of money could ever make up for what was done to him, but the first step towards progress is acknowledging one’s mistakes. The State of Alabama has remained silent and this empty silence says more in itself. This silence is the driving force behind our racially skewed criminal justice system as it says our country is not willing to take a stance and implement change. This silence says it is okay to want to kill a man for something he didn’t do, just because of the color of his skin. Anthony Ray Hinton’s tragic story is a testament of hope, exemplifying a man’s determination to fight back against a powerful and racially biased system that wanted him dead. As a nation, we are able to acknowledge the historical atrocities of slavery, however, many Americans are unaware that the vestiges of slavery are still destroying lives today.