Anthony Ray Hinton knows of a story so disturbingly real that it drives him to ask strangers to help him end the use of the death penalty in the U.S.
The story is Hinton’s story, including the emotion-triggering account of the racial animus that punctuated the process that sent him to death row.
“My conviction on two counts of capital murder had everything to do with race and class,” Hinton, 66, told an audience of 100-plus at the National Civil Rights Museum on Thursday night.
“Now seven years after my release, 196 men and women have been exonerated from death row,” said Hinton, the best-selling author of “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.”
“I urge you young people. Go to school and become attorneys. Fight for the poor who can’t afford adequate representation.”
And, said Hinton, “All of us must join the fight to bring an end to the death penalty.”
Hinton, 66, was featured in a presentation sponsored by the museum, the Tennessee Innocence Project and the Tennessee Valley Authority. It chronicled Hinton’s hopeful and sometimes heartbreaking road to exoneration.
“When I proclaimed my innocence, one of the detectives who came to arrest me said, ‘I really don’t care whether you did or didn’t do it, but I’m going to make sure you are found guilty,” said Hinton.
“After I was convicted and court adjourned, I heard the prosecutor say, ‘Well, we didn’t get the right n****r today, but at least we got another n****r off the street.’”
His best-selling book details Hinton’s first days on death row, how he got through decades of solitary confinement, and his triumphant release into the arms of cheering family and friends.
“The sun does shine” was Hinton’s declaration the day he was released to the arms of cheering family and friends.
On the day the prison gates shut with him inside, Hinton was angry with God for allowing it to happen.
“Where was the God I loved so much,” he recalled thinking. “For three years, I never said a word to anyone.”
Going into the fourth year, Hinton heard a fellow prisoner weeping in a nearby cell. In response to Hinton asking if he could help in some way, the man said his mother had died.
That moment of compassion struck a transformative chord with Hinton, helping him reclaim his humanity.
“I asked God to give me the ability to escape this place,” said Hinton. “I knew I could not do it physically, but mentally I wanted to be free. And God allowed me to do just that. And for 15 long years, I was married to (actress) Halle Berry.”
A sustained chorus of laughter rewarded Hinton’s humor.
He delighted the audience with frequent quips and comic relief as he recalled the places and people “visited” during his moments of mental escape.
“Then, the warden did something that wardens generally don’t do for death row inmates,” said Hinton. “He showed a movie. It was ‘Speed’ with the lovely Sandra Bullock. I had to break it to Halle that I was divorcing her and marrying Sandra. Halle just said, ‘Yes, dear, whatever you say,’ just like she always did.”
Among the horrors of death row is suicide, said Hinton.
“Living in a five by seven cage is designed to break you. …Something broke in me. You never know just going to the shower what you might find. Eleven men took their own lives during the time I was on death row. They got tired of waiting on the state, couldn’t take it anymore.”
One day as a guard watched a television news account of a prisoner being exonerated, Hinton asked if he could stand and watch, too.
“Yes,” the guard said.
“It was my first time seeing Bryan Stevenson,” Hinton said. “I decided I would write Mr. Stevenson a letter and ask him to represent me.”
Stevenson is founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a Montgomery, Alabama-based human rights organization, which fights for fair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row inmates, and aiding children being prosecuted as adults.
In response to Hinton’s letter, Stevenson sent an attorney, who subsequently told Hinton that he could get the death sentence commuted to life without parole.
“I wrote and thanked Mr. Stevenson for sending their attorney,” said Hinton. “But my mother taught me to always tell the truth. To get a life sentence, I would have to stand in court and say I was guilty of murders I never committed.
“I asked Mr. Stevenson to hire ballistics experts to prove I was innocent. My mother’s old revolver had not been fired for 25 years.”
Hinton’s case wound its way to the U. S. Supreme Court.
When all nine justices ruled in Hinton’s favor, he became the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1983.