Anthony Ray Hinton [AH], who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row, was interviewed by a 5-person SPOHP team in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2015.
This is the 37th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.
Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.
AH: We are told we have the best justice system in the world. That might be true. But racism still plays a part. We are taught that justice is blind. But I assure you – the lady sees what race you are, your education background, what neighborhood you live in. When you come through the door, that determines whether you are guilty or innocent.
I was twenty-nine years of age when I was arrested for attempted murder, attempted first-degree kidnap, and first-degree robbery.
After I got arrested, they found that I was at work at the time. So they dropped those charges and charged me with two capital murders. I was given a white lawyer [who] told me, I didn’t go to law school to do pro-bono work. I knew then I was headed for an uphill battle. My lawyer didn’t do what he needed to do.
I found out years later that he was friends with and had represented the very detectives that arrested me.
On my way to jail, one detective told me that five things were going to convict me. He said it was more than likely I was going to have a white jury. Number two: I definitely was going to have a white prosecutor. Number three: I was going to have a white judge. I was going to have a white man that said that I shot him. And you got a white defendant lawyer. He said, you know what that spells? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.
If I could meet that detective, I would love to shake his hand and say you were right, four out of five. I didn’t have an all-white jury. I had probably five blacks on my jury. This case should have been over within twenty-four hours.
My case [dealt] only with ballistics. All they had to do, test the bullets. Come back and be truthful and say the bullets don’t match. But they came back with a lie.
For sixteen years, EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) begged the state to reexamine the ballistics, and they refused.
It was, in my opinion, two factors. The fact that the prosecutors were racist and the fact of politics. When I was arrested, this prosecutor was running for reelection. And what better way to get reelected when you can say, I just put the most dangerous criminal that ever walked the streets of Birmingham on death row.
DG: What was like when you discovered that the Equal [Justice] Initiative was going to represent you?
AH: It was like a breath of fresh air. I wrote Mr. Stevenson a letter from death row. When he agreed to take my case, and we agreed to hire ballistic experts, I begged him not to hire anyone from New York, California, Detroit, Chicago, nothing. I know how racist people in Alabama frown on people up in New York. So he hired two out of Texas, and two out of Virginia. They don’t get no Southern than Texas and Virginia. When they came down to test the gun, they told them, we don’t see no match.
M: After they got on your case, how long did it take for it to become resolved?
AH: Close to eighteen, twenty years. Ballistics is the only thing the state had. The state was saying that the bullets that they got out of the victim matches the gun that they retrieved from my mother’s home. That was a lie.
The courts allowed them access to the old bullets, but due to the fact that I had already been convicted, the state was not obligated to do any more tests. So, we had to fight and get my case overturned.
The Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals turned me down. The Alabama Supreme Court turned me down for sixteen years.
Finally, Mr. Stevenson filed to the [U.S.] Supreme Court, they agreed that I deserved a new trial. That my lawyer was ineffective. That is how I got out. How the state couldn’t deny testing the gun. They couldn’t get a match. They didn’t get a match thirty years ago. Those bullets did not change. We asked the state expert, come show us how you got that match. But the state was not willing.
JH: Your being taken away from your community, what effect did it have on your family?
AH: For thirty years, I didn’t see my family. I am the baby of ten. Five boys and five girls. I grew up thinking that it was a close-knit family. They supported me during the trial. But once I was convicted, I didn’t see any of my family.
As years went by, I think they just gave up. So I stopped calling them and focused on my situation that I was going through. My mother had lost a son. When she passed [in 2002], it was like my whole world stopped. I’m told to this day that my mom passed from a broken heart. When I got the news, it was like, well, I have no reason to live anymore. But I knew she wouldn’t want me to give up.
That’s where my faith kicked in. I prayed. My favorite scripture was Mark 11, verse 24: whatever you desire when you pray, believe in them, and you shall have them. I didn’t ask God but for one thing. I said, let the truth come out. I never believed God would let me die for something I didn’t do. He came through, I guess, on his own time, but when I see him, I am going to get on him for letting me stay up thirty years!
When you lose, in the sense that I lost, and you should have never been there, even to this day, I cry. I cry. I have been out two months.
[Anthony Hinton cries]
They didn’t just put me in prison. They put my mother in prison. I had a mother that loved me unconditionally. And I felt that I let her down, although I was not responsible for being on death row. But in her old age, I should have been the one that carried her a glass of water. I should have been there by her side like she was for me all the years.
Prison is probably the most popular and profitable business in America. You have over two million people in prison in this country.
The same paper that I filed to the United States Supreme Court, they filed it to the Alabama [courts]. I would like to know what the United States Supreme Court sees that the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeal and the Alabama Supreme Court didn’t see. But I already know the answer.
They weren’t even smart enough to hide racism, and you don’t have to hide it. I can’t turn around and sue them. They can’t be disbarred. They make laws to cover themselves. No one has been held accountable.
JH: What have been some of the happier moments that you’ve had being out?
AH: One of the most happy moments, I was able to give a thank you dinner to all the workers here in EJI. I have more to smile for than perhaps all y’all, and hopefully, none of you have been in jail.
When I tell you I value life, I value it now more than ever, because I witnessed fifty-three men being executed. I had the unpleasant [experience] of smelling their flesh still burning the next morning. I witnessed twelve men hang themselves, because they couldn’t take the pressure. I witnessed ten men slashing their own wrists. I have seen death all around me. So to be able to come out with a decent mind, a good attitude, and a zest for life itself, I think I am ahead of the game already.
G: Can you talk about reconnecting with your family?
AH: We had our first family get-together, dinner last week, just to get to know me. And I am going to try to get to know them. I have expressed to them, the past is the past. The fact that you didn’t come see me, you didn’t write me, I am okay with it.
My mom taught me, always be responsible for how we treat others, but never be responsible for how they treat you. So learn to love, to forgive. More importantly, learn to enjoy life. We are going to be brothers and sister until we die, so we just hug and go on with it.
I forgive those friends of mine that didn’t come. Since I have been out, everybody come up to me got an excuse. For thirty years, I fought alone. I slept in the fetus position for thirty years. I could never stretch my legs out, because the bed wasn’t long enough. I walked sometime once a month. Sometime not at all, because they didn’t have the guards there. My mom didn’t raise me to be a quitter.
And I was blessed to come across an attorney like that [points to EJI attorney]. He will never know how much I love him for what he did for me. Because society had thrown me away. I am just thankful that somebody thought enough to take my case. It took us a while, but we won.
JH: There is a story you tell about how you would make jokes with the prison guards.
AH: I asked the guard one day, hey officer, I just got off the phone with my mother, and she ain’t feeling too good. He say, I am sorry to hear that, Anthony. I said, but I need to borrow your car. Just in case I don’t come back, I am going to have my brother to bring you your car back, but I promise it is going to be full of gas. They would laugh about it. I became, as they called it, the Jokemaster there.
JH: What are your future plans?
AH: If there is three of us in this room, statistic-wise, one will end up in prison, and that is way too high. So I want to be able to talk to youth. I want to be a light, not just for black people. I want to be a light for everybody when it comes to this justice system. We got to stop fooling ourselves like everything is okay. Get involved in your community. Go down to the courthouse and sit in a trial. You will be surprised and amazed at what goes on and how it goes on.
I want to thank you all for coming. It has been a pleasure. I will tell my wife when I get home. I didn’t tell you all I was married to Sandra Bullock, did I?
Search for “Anthony Ray Hinton” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.
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