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 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,” that they selected it to highlight for their class capstone project. Hinton was joined by U.S. Rep. David Trone for the two-hour long Zoom event, “Breaking Free: Life Beyond Bars.”
Trone spoke of the need for criminal justice reform as well as his own experience with the judicial system in Pennsylvania. In the 1980s and 1990s, he had multiple cases brought against him related to his business, Total Wine & More. Each time, all 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 said that being white worked to his advantage in his legal struggles.
“Eighty-two percent of the folks incarcerated in America are Black and brown. It is systemic,” he said.
Hinton reflected on his experience in prison and how his story is tragically not the only one of its sort. Hinton recalled his own story “on one of the hottest days that I have ever recalled in the state of Alabama.”
He was mowing the lawn, Hinton said, 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, he would be charged with two counts of capital murder.
The detective who delivered the news, Hinton recalled, told him that he didn’t care whether or not 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 he did not commit.
“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.
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.”