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30 Years on Death Row: A Conversation with Anthony Ray Hinton

‘They tell you justice is blind. I am telling you that justice can see.'

Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted of murdering two fast food restaurant managers in separate robberies in the Birmingham, Ala. area in 1985. The only evidence linking Hinton to the crime were bullets the state’s experts claimed matched a .38 revolver recovered from Hinton’s home. Time cards and other evidence suggested Hinton was working at his warehouse job at the time of the killings. There were no fingerprints. No eyewitness testimony linked Hinton to the killings.

Nevertheless, Hinton, then 29, was sent to death row.

Last year, after years of appeals by Hinton and his attorney, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, the United States Supreme Court overturned Hinton’s conviction and ordered a new trial. (Stevenson is on The Marshall Project’s advisory board.)

Last month, three experts from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences concluded the bullets from the three robberies didn't match each other and could not be linked to the supposed murder weapon.

Last Friday, Hinton emerged from his Jefferson County cell, two months shy of his 59th birthday, a free man. In doing so, he became the 152nd person to be exonerated from death row in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

This week, Hinton talked to Corey G. Johnson of The Marshall Project about his 30-year quest for justice, how he kept his sanity during decades of solitary confinement, and his return to an unfamiliar world. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s it like to be free, Ray?

I went for a walk this morning for the first time. I went where my mom used to live and walked around the yard and come back. It's hard to believe that I can go wherever I want to go without somebody talking about, ‘Well, you can't go beyond that.’ It’s kind of mind-boggling, to tell you the truth. I really haven't gotten quite used to it. I think I’m getting there, but I still have a ways to go.

Anthony Ray Hinton leaving the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Ala. on April 3, the day he was released.

Anthony Ray Hinton leaving the Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham, Ala. on April 3, the day he was released.

What’s boggling your mind?

I haven't seen the razor wire fence and the guards in the guard towers. Or the police riding around every so many seconds or just patrolling the prison. And [on death row] you’re boxed in this like, playground, for normally an hour a day, and that’s depending on the weather, if there's enough staff. We don't walk everyday. Sometimes we didn't walk for a week, two weeks because they don't have the staff to keep you outside in order for you to get some exercise. So now I’m able to just walk out without anybody saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to go in.’

I’ve been to the mall and I’m just getting comfortable with people just walking, so many people behind me and in front of me, because you don't have that in there. I don't know who's walking behind me, who's that in front of me or who's beside me. It makes me a little nervous.

And that nervousness is coming from the fear that somebody can harm you?

Yes, yes, yes.

On death row, we had our separate exercise yard. On death row, you walk with a certain amount of groups. For instance, the tier that I was on, you have a total of 28 inmates, and all of us know one another, so you've got some playing basketball, some playing volleyball, some walking around the yard. So you're not constantly where a whole lot of people are around you at one time, as opposed to when I went to the mall last Saturday. They were coming and going from every direction.

You've got to realize something, I stayed in a 5’ x 7’ for 30 years, just about. I was in that cell by myself, no one else but me. I’ve got to get used to noise and the sounds of everything because it's fairly quiet on death row. Every man is in his own world. You've got some reading books, some drawing, some watching TV, some up under their headphones. We all did our time differently.

So, you get out here and there's people all over the place, making all kinds of noise, all up in your personal space.

Absolutely. I felt out of place, I was wondering who was really watching me. That first Friday, people were recognizing me and pointing at me, and in one way I was like okay, they've seen me on the news, and I’m thinking, What are they thinking? Do they think: There's that man that got away with it, or, There's that man that was innocent? So I’m trying to eat, and every now and then, I would look up and see people just pointing at me and looking at me, and I want to say, I’m a human being, yeah you've seen me on TV, I’m trying to adjust.

It took me a little while to remember how to use a fork. You know we don't use forks in the penitentiary. You get a spoon. And the spoon is plastic, so I haven't used a fork in 30 years. I just really tried to order something that didn't make me look like I didn't have any home training. It’s like learning everything over again.

What did you order?

I got me some baked beans. We had baked beans down there, believe it or not. I got some fried chicken. I wanted some fish and hush puppies, and I really wanted a salad. I looked at the salad, and I couldn't never just like adjust to sticking the fork down, so I kinda put that back to the side. I just stayed with something that was natural to me — a piece of chicken. I picked it up with my hands and then bit it off. Pretty much what we would have in the penitentiary. We do have fried chicken occasionally. And like, say, every fourth of July, we’d have baked beans. I stayed with food I could get on death row.

Now that you're a free man, what do you want to do?

I would love to be able to be a motivational speaker for young black kids. If I could, I’d go to high schools throughout the state, or churches. I think that somebody that has been through what I’ve been through can look kids in the eye and tell them: “Even if you're obeying the law, you stand a greater chance of going to prison. I wasn't breaking the law, and I went to prison — not just to prison, I went to death row — for 30 years. And I'm here to ask y’all to go to school and get good grades, go to college and don't end up where I ended up. Once you get in there, you can't have mama, you can't call for your brother.”

I want to talk to these young people in a language that they can understand, and I want to save as many as I can. I know I wouldn't be able to save everybody, but the person that goes to prison, if he ever heard me talk and he went to prison, he’ll at least say, “A guy tried to tell me about prison.” Nobody told me about places like that, and I feel like even on some Sunday, I want to be able to get in my car — once I get one if I ever get one — and just go out try to be an inspiration to the young blacks, because I think they need it more than any other race, just living in Alabama.

In solitary confinement, a lot of people break up. They lose their mind, they give up, they commit suicide. Tell me about your experience. How you were able to hold onto yourself?

I come from a Christian background. My mom was strict. She always would instill in us that we don't need anybody to actually play with. Get outside and play by yourself. She taught me to lean on Jesus and no one else. And when I got to death row, believe it or not, I witnessed people hanging. I seen people cut their wrist. I seen blood leaking from under the cell. I seen men who hung themselves. And so I became a person that got wrapped up in my sense of humor, and I tried to make everybody that I came in contact with — from prison guard to the wardens to the inmates — I tried to make everybody laugh. I would see a guard come by and I would say, “Hey officer.” He’d say, “Yeah Anthony, what can I do for you?” I’d say, “I need to run to the house for about an hour, and I’m gonna need to use your car. I’ll bring it right back, but I need to go.” And they would laugh.

You have to understand something: These crooked D.A.s and police officers and racist people had lied on me and convicted me of a horrible crime for something I didn't do. They stole my 30s, they stole my 40s, they stole my 50s. I could not afford to give them my soul. I couldn't give them me. I had to hold onto that, and the only thing that kept me from losing my mind was my sense of humor.

There's no man who's able to go in a cell by yourself, and you're there for 23, sometimes 24 hours a day, and you don't come out. There's not a human being that can withstand that pressure unless there's something greater inside of him. And the spirit was in me where I didn't have to worry about killing myself.

I’d be lying if I didn't say that Satan didn't come up on me and tell me, Well you ain’t never gonna get out of here. When I saw people going to be executed, every man in there would tell you he questions himself — is that ever going to happen to me? And when that little voice comes and says, Well they’re going to get you the next time, I would immediately tell him to get thee behind me, and I would turn on that switch of laughter. And I didn't ever turn it off. To this day, even though I’m free, I still haven't turned that sense of humor off.

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If you could have seen me in those 30 years, you would have said this guy can't be human. This guy is crazy. This guy laughs and plays like he ain’t on death row. I didn't accept the death penalty. You can't make me take the death penalty. You can give it to me, but you can't make me take it in my heart.

And you never did take it in your heart because you knew you were innocent?

I knew I was innocent. And I believed that the God that I served would not let me die for something that I didn't do. I live by one particular Bible verse: The book of Mark, chapter 11, verse 24: “What things you ever so desire, when you pray, believe in them, and you shall have them.” And my prayer was: Lord, deliver me from this place.

And how often did you pray that prayer?

Every night. I woke up on it. I went to sleep with it on my mind. Every night. That’s why I can tell you that I know it was the grace of God, and I know he heard my prayer.

Your case and what happened to you is one of the worst examples of injustice that I’ve ever seen.

One of the white men that came to carry me to jail said, “Oh I don't care if you did it or didn't do it, you're gonna pay the price for it.” I said, “How is that, when I haven't done nothing?” And he said, “Well let me tell you, on account of you're black, you're going to have a white lawyer, a white judge, more than likely a white jury, and you have a prior conviction for theft of property. You know what that spells?” I said “No sir.” He said, “It spells Conviction. Conviction, Conviction, Conviction, Conviction.”

Did you end up with an all white legal situation?

The judge was white. Both of the prosecutors were white. But the jury was mixed. I might have had five blacks on the jury, but I’m not sure.

“People say she died of a broken heart because she never could get over me. That worried me, and I believe it with every fiber of my body that she was never the same when I went to prison.”

Do you think those prosecutors deserve to lose their license?

Most definitely they deserve to lose their license. And the reason I say that, Mr. Stevenson will tell you if you talk to him, the same prosecutor told the newspaper that if I ever got out, he would be waiting on me, with a brand new .38 pistol, and he would gun me down in the parking lot. It’s all in the Birmingham News.

Were there any days behind bars where you felt overwhelmed or down?

Yes. When I got the word sent to me that my mother had passed in 2002. That was the saddest day of my life. Here’s a woman that raised you, fed you, clothed you, and she passed. I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye, I never got a chance to hug her. I didn't know where they were burying her, all of these things were on my mind, and that was the saddest thing. People say she died of a broken heart because she never could get over me. That worried me, and I believe it with every fiber of my body that she was never the same when I went to prison. She didn't understand, she wasn't very educated so she didn't understand. She would say, “When are these people going to let you go?” So that is a hurting thing. [Crying] They didn't just take me, but they did this to my mama.

How did you pull through that?

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When they buried her, I had to fight even harder with that sense of humor because I knew she wouldn't ever want me to give up. I knew if anybody was going to be in God’s ear, I knew that from the day my mother arrived in heaven, she was going to be on him constantly. And so I pulled myself back together and I put this wall around me. I just couldn't feel sad no more. I knew that one day God was going to deliver me. And I believed when I had done ten years, I believe God called my name and said, Ray come forth. Twenty years went and he said, Ray come forth. And when that 30 years came, he said, Ray come forth, and then I came out the door just like Lazarus did. That’s what I believe. So those devils, those liars, those racist people, they will get their just reward one day. I’m at home.

Tell me about the day you received the news the Supreme Court had ordered a new trial.

I can still hear my voice screaming on death row: I got a new trial! I got a new trial! I don’t do drugs, period. Never have. But it was a high that you can’t even explain. I felt like I was walking on water, I felt like I could walk on air.

Has anyone from the state of Alabama or associated with this case ever apologized to you?

No. I haven’t even had a black senator or anyone from the legislature apologize. Nobody. Nobody who worked with the state has said, I’m sorry for what happened to you. Nope. Nobody

Are you going to sue or seek compensation for what you went through?

I haven’t talked about it, and Mr. Stevenson hasn’t talked about it. Believe it or not, I would feel relieved if they would just come clean and somebody would say, “Hey, we’re sorry.” But you know, this is Alabama. I don’t think we should have to make them pay me, but if that’s what it takes and if that’s what Mr. Stevenson thinks we should do, then that’s what we’ll do.

For other people who are on death row, or have been wrongfully convicted, what advice would you give them?

I would tell them just hold on, pray, keep the faith, work with their lawyer, question their lawyer, go to the law libraries whenever they could. Never give up. If you know you’re there for something you didn’t do, I would give them my favorite scripture, Mark 11:24, and I wouldn’t want them to just read it. I would want them to believe it. And if they believe, I assure them they can walk out of there, just like I did. Because what’s done in the dark will come to light.

How would you improve the criminal justice system given what you’ve experienced?

First of all, there needs to be a overhaul of racial diversity in these criminal cases. Second of all, there should be a committee that overlooks every case that ended with the death penalty to make sure the person got a fair trial and was given adequate funding to have experts. Most people don’t realize, I went to trial for two capital murders. Now, the state had every available agency that it needed at its disposal. My lawyer didn’t have anything like that. So the playing field isn’t fair. Not even halfway level. You’ve got to make the playing field level. I think if the state is going to spend, let’s say 500,000 dollars, then the defense should get 500,000 dollars. Imagine if I had had the money that my lawyer knew I needed to have experts. This case would have never got off the ground.

But now, here’s the thing that most people don’t understand. They say “Well, you have a right to an attorney.” They didn’t lie about that. They’ll give you any attorney. But is he going to work for you? Is he going to do for you what you need to do? I don’t think so. Number two is, they tell you justice is blind. I am telling you that justice can see. She sees what race you are, she sees where you went to college, she sees economics, she sees everything there is to see. And it all depends on what she sees, depends on whether or not you go back home or not. And when she saw me, she knew I was going to death row.

But she didn’t see the power of God.

No she didn’t. And that was her biggest mistake.