After 30 years on death row, Anthony Ray Hinton–an innocent man convicted of murder–is set free.
Written by Lanier Isom
Photography by Elizabeth DeRamus
Anthony Ray Hinton walked out of the Jefferson County Jail to face the crowd of reporters and cameramen awaiting him. His hellish ordeal was over, but he still half-expected to feel the bite of handcuffs on his wrists as he was hauled back to death row.
Hinton had imagined this day every day for three decades. When he stepped in front of the microphone, his hair now graying around his temples, his beard nearly all white, he spoke the words he’d repeated silently to himself for 30 years: “Everybody that played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God.”
On April 3, 2015, Good Friday, Hinton became the 152nd prisoner released from death row in the United States.
Now outside the prison walls, Hinton was afraid, unsure how to navigate a world that had left him for dead. As a 59-year-old man, he’s “relearning how to walk.” The last time he’d been outside a 5 x 7 jail cell, he was 29 years old. Trying to adapt to the modern world, Hinton marvels at smartphones and Siri. He’s overwhelmed by big box retailers like Wal-Mart and confounded by the miles of endless interstate. “Everything has changed but the church taking up a collection,” he says, grinning.
The entire time Hinton was incarcerated—for 30 years—his best friend Lester Bailey drove the 380 mile round trip every month to visit him. Their mothers, best friends everyone called Lucy and Ethel, were as inseparable as the two boys were. Today Hinton lives with Bailey, a supervisor at the nearby Tyson plant, and Bailey’s wife, Sylvia, on Sugar Top Lane in Quinton, Alabama,“God’s country” as Hinton calls the place he was born and raised, where a lone tree marked the demarcation line between the black neighborhood and the white. Every morning, Hinton still wakes up at 3:00 a.m. for breakfast, eats lunch at 10:00, and dinner at 3:00 p.m. He still showers every other day as prisoners do. He wonders if he’ll ever be free: “I’m just programmed for 30 years to do something the way they did,” he says.
His last day of freedom was a summer day in 1985 when he was cutting grass in his mother’s backyard in Quinton, the small coal mining community near Dora where he grew up. He looked up to see two white deputies standing on the edge of her back porch. Hinton, sweaty, cut off the lawn mower’s engine.
“What can I do for you?” Hinton asked.
After they identified themselves as Sergeant Miller and Lieutenant Acker from the Bessemer Police Department, Acker asked, “Are you Anthony Ray Hinton?” Yes, he was. They said they had a warrant for his arrest. Hinton asked why.
“We’ll tell you later.”
Hinton complied as they handcuffed him. He asked again why he was being arrested. Their reply was the same: “We’ll tell you later.”
When the law enforcement officers told him to get into the squad car, Hinton balked. He needed to tell his mother he was being arrested. The Lieutenant refused, but the Sergeant relented, and Hinton was escorted into the small kitchen where he’d eaten a ham sandwich earlier that afternoon. That was the last time Hinton saw his mother outside prison.
On the way to the Bessemer jail, Lieutenant Acker told Hinton five things were going to convict him. “You’re black. You’re going to have a white man who said you shot him, a white prosecutor and a white judge, and most likely, a white jury. “
On July 25, 1985, Hinton was charged in the deaths of two restaurant managers, John Davidson and Thomas Vason, one white and the other black, at a Mrs. Winners’ restaurant on Southside and Captain D’s in Woodlawn. During this string of robberies, a third victim had been wounded at Quincy’s in Bessemer. He identified Hinton in a photo line-up as the man who shot him.
No eyewitnesses or fingerprints linked Hinton to the crime scenes. Hinton had a rock solid alibi—he was sweeping floors at a security controlled Bruno’s Grocery warehouse in Ensley where he’d clocked in—and he also passed a lie detector test later deemed inadmissible. Lieutenant Acker was not exactly right: One black person sat on the jury.
During trial, Hinton’s defense attorney, Sheldon C. Perhacs, hired the only ballistics expert he thought Hinton could afford. Based on the claim that his mother’s gun was the same weapon used in the two murders, in 1987, Hinton was sentenced to death row at Holman Correctional Facility near the small town of Atmore, home to the Poarch Creek Indian casino, and “Yellow Mama,” Alabama’s notorious electric chair.
In 1999, Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) based in Montgomery, initiated the process to file for a new trial. Three ballistics experts retested the bullets. Their findings contradicted the prosecution’s previous testimony. After sitting on the case for three years, Judge James Garrett maintained Hinton wasn’t entitled to a new trial. In 2005, Stevenson argued before the court of appeals but, in 2006, was dismissed despite Judge Sue Bell Cobb and Judge Shaw voting in favor of a new trial. During almost two decades of appeals, Stevenson says the most devastating part of litigation, year after year, was the fact that the state would rather execute an innocent man than admit a mistake.
During the interminable appeals process, Hinton soon recognized from the tone of Stevenson’s voice over the phone when he was about to deliver bad news. In spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Hinton always tried to stay upbeat, one time telling Stevenson, “You take this weekend, you go out and have some fun because that old guy, Ray Hinton, he’s going to try to walk this weekend and shoot some basketball.” Monday morning after Hinton had spoken to Stevenson again and determined he was in a better frame of mind, Hinton said, “Now you get to work on that case.”
When Stevenson took the case before the Alabama Supreme Court in 2006, seven years passed, years of submitting new findings, until 2013 when the court ruled against Hinton. Stevenson filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In February 2014, after reexamining the ballistic evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hinton, resulting in the granting of a new trial.
Back in 1987 and through the years, Hinton made a point to tell every corrections officer he met that he was innocent. “As they got to know me, they used to tell me, ‘You know, Ray, I believe in you.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to believe in me. I’ll show you better than I can tell you.’”
During the pre-trial proceedings, experts from the Alabama Department of Forensics Sciences concluded the bullets from the three robberies didn’t match Hinton’s mother’s gun. Chief Deputy Jefferson County District Attorney John Bowers and Assistant District Attorney Mike Anderton dropped the charges, and the state had no choice but to dismiss the case. The fear of being perceived as soft on crime coupled with a lack of integrity are hallmarks of a terribly broken judicial system in Alabama, Stevenson believes. Politicians preach fear and anger, Stevenson says, especially in the Deep South, where there’s a long history of wielding the criminal justice system as a weapon to sustain the Jim Crow legacy of the South’s racial hierarchy.
Hinton tries to explain how it feels to be wrongly convicted. Imagine going down the road driving 40 miles per hour and being stopped by the police, Hinton says. The police say you were going 70 miles per hour. You tell the judge you were going the speed limit, but your testimony falls on deaf ears. “What happened to me was out of the blue. I was picked up, arrested, tried, and convicted to die for something I didn’t do,” he says.
During his confinement, Hinton witnessed 53 executions and more than 20 suicides. He witnessed inmates hanging in their cells, saw blood seeping under cell doors from slashed wrists.
Why didn’t he commit suicide?
One reason is he read every book available to him. “Those who didn’t read are the ones that that voice told them, ‘Hang yourself,’ and they did. Those are the ones that let the voice say, ‘Well, slash your wrists,’ and they did,’” he explains.
In 1987, the only book available was the Bible. As Hinton read scripture, he came across one particular passage, Mark 11:24. Every night that he went to sleep in the unbearable silence and darkness of death row, Hinton prayed to be delivered, reciting, “What things will you desire when you pray, believe in them and you shall have them.” As time passed, the prison library expanded, and Hinton gravitated to black authors, reading books like Go Tell It on the Mountain, Your Blues Ain’t Like My Blues, and Coming of Age in Mississippi.
In order to keep his own sanity, he also tried to focus on anything or anyone except himself. Instead, he reached out to the inmate crying or even the corrections officer having a bad day.
Two years after Hinton was incarcerated, his father, mentally disabled after a mining accident and committed to Bryce, the state mental hospital, died from black lung disease. In 2002, Hinton experienced his darkest day, the Saturday morning the captain called him in to tell him his mother had passed away. She died of a broken heart, Hinton says. “It was hard for me to accept that I was being taken away from her for those years that I should’ve been there to take her fishing, to take her to the doctor. I could understand even more if I had been guilty,” he says. “It was like my life didn’t matter to no one but her.”
Hinton’s mother instilled a sense of grace, forgiveness, and acceptance in all 10 of her children. The first three years on death row, Hinton was angry, but when he complained about the food, his sister told him to quit complaining, bless it, and eat it. He finally did. He also realized if he were to survive, he had to take his mother’s teachings to heart—he had to embody her belief that you’re responsible for how you treat others, not how they treat you. “I think that played a part in me not hating the people that did this to me. It’s because I think about her words,” says Hinton. “I’m not responsible for what they did to me. They have to answer for it.”
When he lost his mother, he lost her unconditional love, one of two things he said he was born with. Hinton was determined to keep the other thing, his sense of humor, alive and escape through his imagination. He says he has so many frequent flier miles from having tea with the Queen of England or drinking a piña colada on the beach with Rihanna in his mind that he could fly free with Delta. “That’s how I coped, and my last word to the men on death row was to find a way to escape whether you use your mind, whether you read 24/7, but find a way that you don’t think about what you’re here for,” he says.
As Hinton continues to adjust to his new life, sometimes, he finds himself crying without a reason. “On the outside I look fine, but inside is a deep scar from the pure hell I went through losing my family,” he says. “I’ll never catch up or make up the things I lost. I’ll never see my mother alive.”
Most of the time, though, he views the world with wonder: “When I tell you that I appreciate the wind blowing, when I tell you I appreciate hearing the birds, the crickets at night, when I tell you I enjoy everything that I took for granted, I mean I enjoy it.”
When I visited Hinton at Bailey’s house, we went inside the small white church next door undergoing a renovation. Leftover programs from past Sunday services lay scattered on the row of seven pews. I picked up one program. The lesson for the first week in June: Paul and Silas in prison, unfairly imprisoned in a Philippian jail and freed by a miracle when an earthquake shakes open the prison door and loosens Paul’s bonds. Inside the program was a list of the congregants’ birthdays. The top of the list: Anthony Ray Hinton, June 1.
Five months out of prison, Hinton faces each new day with gratitude. “They took 30 years of my life, but I refuse to let them take one ounce of my joy,” he says. The other day, a man at church asked Hinton why he’s not bitter. Even though a mistake was made on purpose, Hinton says, he chooses forgiveness to keep his peace of mind. “I choose the word of Jesus and I asked Jesus to forgive me because I ain’t always been the good boy for we all have sinned,” he says. “I believe that when we go to our Heavenly Father and ask for forgiveness, if I’m not willing to forgive you, how can I expect Him to forgive me?”