CUMBERLAND — “I want to ask you, what would you do if they came for you?”
That was among the questions Anthony Ray Hinton posed to the more than 100 people watching a virtual event Monday night featuring Hinton, an exonerated former death row prisoner in Alabama who was falsely convicted of the murder of two restaurant workers.
Students in Allegany College of Maryland’s Human Services program were so moved by Hinton’s story, told in his memoir “The Sun Does Shine,” they selected it to highlight for their class capstone project. Hinton was joined by U.S. Rep. David Trone for the two-hour Zoom event, “Breaking Free: Life Beyond Bars.”
Ahead of Hinton sharing his story, Trone, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s Sixth Congressional district, spoke of the need for criminal justice reform, as well as his own experience with the judicial system in Pennsylvania. There, in the 1980s and 1990s, he had multiple cases brought against him related to his business, Total Wine & More. Each time, charges were ultimately dropped.
“I knew enough, fortunately, because I had some advantages that others such as Mr. Hinton and many others did not have at the time,” Trone said. “At the end of the day, having those financial resources gave me a real edge.”
Trone also said that being white worked to his advantage in his legal struggles.
“That gives me an unbelievable edge over all of our Black and brown brothers,” Trone said. “Eighty-two percent of the folks incarcerated in America are Black and brown. It is systemic.”
Throughout the event, Hinton reflected on his experience in jail, and how his story is not the only one of its sort. He recalled his own story from its beginning “on one of the hottest days that I have ever recalled in the state of Alabama.”
Hinton said he was mowing the lawn when two Birmingham detectives appeared and arrested him without telling him why. He ultimately learned that while police had verified his alibi for the initial charges of robbery, kidnapping and attempted murder brought against him, he would still be charged, but with two counts of capital murder.
The detective who delivered the news, Hinton recalled, told him that he didn’t care whether he was guilty of the crime.
“As I stood there, trying to convince this detective that I could never take a human being’s life, he finally stopped me,” Hinton said. “He said ‘Let me be honest with you: I truly believe you didn’t do it. But since y’all folk is always taking up for one another, why don’t you take this rap for your homeboy who truly did it?’ I looked at that detective and I said ‘Detective, there’s not a homeboy in this world that I would take a rap for like that.’”
Hinton stood trial with a lawyer appointed by the court who didn’t believe in his innocence. On Dec. 7, 1986, he said, he was sentenced to death for the murders.
“I had to sit there and witness 54 men being executed, smelling their flesh. My cell was 30 feet away from the death chamber,” Hinton said.
His time on death row, Hinton said, was “30 years of pure hell.” Despite being initially angry with God after his conviction, he said, he came to find solace and hope in his faith.
He also posed a series of questions to those watching.
“I want to ask you, what would you do if they came for you?” Hinton said. “What would you do if you were charged with a crime that you didn’t commit? What would you do if you didn’t have the money to hire a decent defense? What would you do if you pass the polygraph test, but they cared more about the color of your skin than the results of that test?”
While no one involved in his wrongful conviction and incarceration has ever apologized to him, Hinton said he has forgiven them nonetheless.
“I forgave the men that got together and tried to take my life,” Hinton said. “I didn’t forgive them so they could sleep good at night. I forgave them so I could sleep good at night. I truly believe in order to be free, one must forgive. I want you to know tonight forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. I could not allow those men who robbed me of 30 years to continue to rob me of my joy.”