Anthony Ray Hinton spent decades in jail for crimes he did not commit. His book is a harrowing masterpiece
If you think there is no reason for another book about a grave miscarriage of American justice, think again.
Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir of his wrongful imprisonment for 30 years for three murders he did not commit is a riveting account of the multiple outrages of the criminal justice system of Alabama. But that isn’t what makes this a genuine spiritual experience: that comes from the nearly biblical capacity of the author to endure, to forgive, and finally to triumph.
It only takes the first two pages of the introduction by the author’s equally remarkable lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, to make the reader appalled. There was no evidence at all to tie Hinton to two of the three murders he was accused of, and he was “locked in a supermarket warehouse cleaning floors … when a restaurant manager 15 miles away was abducted, robbed and shot”.
That victim survived and then misidentified Hinton as his assailant; then the state completed this travesty by providing completely fake ballistic evidence to tie a gun found in Hinton’s mother’s home to all three murders.
“My only crime was being born black in Alabama,” Hinton writes, his prosecution “nothing less than a lynching” in which the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan were replaced by the black robes of justice. One of his arresting officers explained his fate this way, after the prisoner told him he could prove he had been working at the time of one of the murders: “You know, I don’t even care whether you did or didn’t do it … In fact, I believe you didn’t do it. But it doesn’t matter. If you didn’t do it, one of your brothers did. And you’re going to take the rap. You want to know why?”
The cop gave Hinton “five reasons”.
“Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man gonna say you shot him. Number three, you’re gonna have a white district attorney. Number four, you’re gonna have a white judge. And number five, you’re gonna have an all-white jury.”
The cop was right. Hinton was assigned an incompetent lawyer who was paid $1,000 by the state and then proceeded to hire an incompetent ballistics expert who guaranteed his conviction on fake evidence.
“In Alabama,” he writes, “judges are elected based on how many people they send to death row, not on how many people they let off.”
Hinton’s lawyer provides this ghastly statistic: “With 34 executions and seven exonerations in Alabama since 1975, one innocent person has been identified on Alabama’s death row for every five executions.”
With the help of his co-author Lara Love Hardin, Hinton conveys all the horror of his years in solitary confinement, barely able to breath in 120F (49C) summer heat, eating food that tasted like dust. But something deep inside his character made it possible for him to make friends of everyone near him, from the white man next to him on death row who had lynched a black teenager to almost every single prison guard who met him.
His lawyer writes: “Never have more guards, correctional staff and prison workers pulled me aside to offer assistance … during the many years I have worked with Ray. I have never experienced anything like it.”
When Hinton convinces the prison warden about halfway through his three decades of imprisonment to allow him to receive books – besides the Bible – so that he can form a book club, the reader shares the exhilaration of Hinton and half a dozen of his fellow prisoners as they are finally able to travel outside the walls of the prison, through the words of James Baldwin and Harper Lee.
But the book club is short-lived, after the prisoners who are left out of it convince the warden it is unfair to allow only some of them to become readers. The books are still passed around from cell to cell, but the meetings in the prison library are over.
After every level of the Alabama court system had rejected Hinton’s appeals multiple times, his lawyer decided to take his case directly to the US supreme court. In 2015, Hinton’s 30 years of unbroken prayers were answered and the nation’s highest court ruled unanimously in his favor. Fourteen months later, the district attorney in Alabama finally abandoned the case, and Hinton went free.
Since then, Hinton has been able to forgive everyone responsible for his imprisonment, “because that’s how my mother raised me” and “because I have a God who forgives”. He has become an inspirational speaker, traveling the country and the world.
He has one message for everyone who will listen: “Our system is broken, and it’s time to put a stop to the death penalty. As my good friend Bryan Stevenson says, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice – but justice needs help.”
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