By Jason Klaiber
Image retrieved from huffingtonpost.com
In 1985, the state of Alabama convicted Anthony Ray Hinton for first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery and two counts of first-degree murder—charges punishable by the death penalty and crimes that the court later ruled he didn’t commit.
“I was sent to death row because I was born black and because I was born poor,” said Hinton.
The All Bonaventure Reads keynote for the book “Just Mercy” by lawyer Bryan Stevenson took place in Dresser Auditorium at 7 p.m. Monday, discussing the personal experiences of Hinton and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
Hinton recalled telling his mother that a lieutenant and sergeant held a warrant for his arrest.
“Like any good mother, my mother began to holler and shout,” said Hinton.
After bringing Hinton to the police station, the officers returned to his mother’s house to retrieve the pistol she owned, which would eventually be cited as the murder weapon.
While under arrest, Hinton pleaded his innocence.
“I said, ‘Man, you’ve got the wrong person,’” said Hinton. “’The detective looked at me and said, ‘Well, we might have, but you’ll do.’”
The court, consisting of a white judge, white victims, a white prosecutor and an all-white jury, later sentenced Hinton to death by electrocution.
“What kind of system do we have that an innocent person goes not to jail and not to prison, but to death row?” said Hinton.
Hinton used his sense of humor and imagination to cope with his imprisonment.
“You have to find a way to get away from the place,” said Hinton.
Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Alabama, executed 54 men and one woman in their death chamber, located just 30 feet away from Hinton’s cell.
“Nothing in this world can prepare you to smell another human being that had been burned alive the night before,” said Hinton.
The EJI, a legal practice Stevenson founded to represent prisoners who have faced poverty, wrongful conviction or lack of a fair trial, appointed a lawyer to Hinton about midway through his prison stay. The lawyer informed Hinton after two years that he could obtain a life without parole sentence. This deteriorated the relationship between the two.
“I needed someone to believe in me,” said Hinton. “I didn’t need no life without parole. I needed my freedom back.”
After seeing Stevenson speak on television about the death penalty and his firm, Hinton decided to contact him directly and explain his innocence.
“Something took my pen and wrote the beautiful letter that you could ever read,” said Hinton.
In the letter, Hinton expressed that if Stevenson could find anything pointing to a guilty charge, then he shouldn’t bother to meet with him.
Stevenson found two ballistic experts from Texas and one from Virginia, all of whom concluded the bullets didn’t match Hinton’s mother’s pistol.
However, 16 years passed before the state of Alabama retested the evidence that proved Hinton’s innocence.
“For 16 years, it was as though my life didn’t matter,” said Hinton.
In 2002, while Hinton waited for a new trial, his mother passed away.
“I felt cheated,” said Hinton. “I didn’t care about what was being done to me, but I felt my mother deserved better. I was not allowed to attend her funeral. I was not allowed to do anything but grieve in a 5-by-7.”
The court exonerated Hinton in April. After his release, he restored his mother’s house and purchased new furniture, including a California king-sized bed.
However, Hinton still lives life in predisposition. He continues to wake up at 3 a.m. every day expecting to eat breakfast. Although his bathroom contains a bathtub, he’s only been able to shower.
“Five months will not erase what 30 years have caused me,” said Hinton. “Every day, I try my best to enjoy life a little bit more. You never realize how much you lose until something is taken away from you.”
Hinton ended his talk by stressing the importance of forgiveness in the wake of an unfortunate situation like his.
“I forgive those racist prosecutors,” said Hinton. “I do not forgive them so they can sleep good at night. I forgive them so I can sleep good at night. If you can tell me that hate would profit me, I would hate.”
Charlotte Morrison, senior attorney with the EJI, followed Hinton’s talk with a summary of Hinton’s case in legal terms, focusing on the dysfunction within the justice system.
“What happened to Mr. Hinton is not a mistake,” said Morrison. “It’s the symptom of a justice system that is riddled by racial bias and strangled by hopelessness.”
David Bryant, a junior double major in journalism and mass communication and english , viewed Hinton’s courage as inspirational.
“As a young African-American male, I look up to him as a role model, and I think that it’s absolutely amazing that he doesn’t let something like the institutionalism of the justice system define him as a person or ruin or tarnish his spirit,” said Bryant.
Sophomore elementary education major Madeleine Feddern viewed the injustice of the judicial system as an ongoing problem in the United States.
“The fact that stuff like this still happens is disgusting,” said Feddern. “While I think it’s something that a lot of people identify as wrong, I don’t think it’ll necessarily be changed anytime soon.”
Parker Suddeth, coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, believed the keynote gave legitimacy to why St. Bonaventure chose “Just Mercy” as the All Bonaventure Reads book this year.
“[The talk] keeps us constantly in the mind frame that as inhabitants of society, we take everything for granted, even something as simple as the ability to walk free and roam the Earth,” said Suddeth.