Anthony Ray Hinton was mowing the lawn at his mother’s house in 1985 when Alabama police came to arrest him for two murders he did not commit. One took place when he was working the night shift at a Birmingham warehouse. Yet the state won a death sentence, based on two bullets it falsely claimed matched a gun found at his mother’s home. In his powerful new memoir, “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row,” Hinton describes how racism and a system stacked against the poor were the driving forces behind his conviction. He also writes about the unique and unexpected bonds that can form on death row, and in particular about his relationship with Henry Hays, a former Klansman sentenced to death for a notorious lynching in 1981. Hays died in the electric chair in 1997 — one of 54 people executed in Alabama while Hinton was on death row.
After almost 30 years, Hinton was finally exonerated in 2015, thanks to the Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI. On April 27, Hinton spoke at the Peace and Justice Summit in Montgomery, organized by EJI to launch two new historical memorials: the Memorial to Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. (See related coverage here.) I met Hinton at a conference room at EJI’s headquarters. In a blue checkered shirt and black boots, he said he likes to picture his lawyer and close friend Bryan Stevenson at that same table, strategizing around his case. We discussed Hinton’s memoir, his unlikely friendship with Hays, and the links between racial violence and the modern death penalty.
Liliana Segura: You were a big part of the opening of EJI’s Peace and Justice Summit. What was it like to visit the memorial and museum?
Anthony Ray Hinton: Seeing myself in the museum was like, “Wow.” A whole lot of memories came back — not all good memories. But if 30 years is what it cost me to educate people, so be it. Those names you read when you go up to the memorial — they lost their life. As you read why they were lynched, you think, are you serious? This man was lynched because he asked for a receipt. This man was lynched because he looked at a white woman. Although I’ve read about all of these types of crimes, it brought tears to my eyes.
I call the death penalty, to this day, a form of lynching. It’s not where they run to your house and burn you up without justification. Now, they do it in the name of the law. I was a victim of that, and almost lost my life because they have that much power.
LS: Lynching was a form of torture and terror for the community. You write vividly about those nights when men were killed in the electric chair. Would you call that torture?
ARH: Absolutely. It’s torture for the guards that have a job to do. It’s torture for the warden. It was torture for us. When you smell this smell, it makes you run to the toilet and throw up. This smell gets up in your nostrils, and you couldn’t get it out. Torture was sitting there, 30 feet away from the death chamber, knowing that one day that’s going to be me.
ARH: Try to imagine: You and I live in this room for 30 years. We get to know each other, probably better than you would someone in your own household. Now, they come and it’s your time to be executed. We don’t know whether or not you have family members there. We don’t even know whether your lawyer was going to be there. No one came and said, “His mother is with him.” Banging on the bars was our way of letting the condemned know we are still here with you until the very end.
At one point, they used to carry out executions at 12:01 a.m. We would start beating on the bars about five minutes to 12. We would beat about 15, 20 minutes after 12. We would stop to see if we heard any noise. Every now and then one of the guards would say, “They haven’t killed him yet.” We would go back to beating on the bars.
LS: That’s interesting – they didn’t try to stop you.
ARH: The guards got to the point they understood why we did it. People don’t realize that when you go to prison, families forsake you or they don’t visit. You have to learn to develop a new family, new friends. A lot of guys had pen pals from other states and from other countries. The guards realized that it was our way of saying goodbye to someone that had no one.
LS: It’s a form of protest, really.
ARH: Absolutely. We wanted the guards to hear and we wanted the warden to hear. We would shout out, “Murderers.” We would shout out, “You’re no better than what he did.” Who was going to be put on death row for this man’s murder? I do think it made a difference. I think it made the condemned feel love. It made them feel that somebody really cared enough about me to raise hell.
LS: Some of the most profound parts of your book are the sections in which we get to know Henry Hays before he was executed. On my drive down here, I was listening to an audio book about his case — his crime, but also about his background, his father, who was horribly abusive. How have people responded to that portion of the book?
ARH: The first person who called me was my niece. She said, “Uncle Ray, how could you?” I said, “Let’s back up a moment. Henry was born Henry Francis Hayes, not “KKK Henry Francis Hayes.” I explained to her that from the time he was conceived, he was taught hate. I imagine at the age of four and five his daddy drilled in him the word “nigger” every day, all day. As he got older, he went to Klan meetings, teaching him more hate. Before he turned 15, 16, 17 – where was child protective services? We love to say it takes a village to raise a child. Where was this village when this young boy was being mentally abused? The village didn’t come out until he did something horrible. That same village that should have protected him found him guilty. This same village said, “This world would be better if you wasn’t in it.” What I find joy in is the fact that for 15 years, Henry was taught to hate, but once Henry came to death row, the very people that he was taught to hate taught him love, compassion. Henry changed and I saw the change.
LS: It really debunks the idea that some people are so irredeemable they have to be sentenced to die.
ARH: Politicians would also have you to believe it is a deterrent. Believe me, at the moment they was executing a man, somebody else was committing murder in Alabama. We need to be truthful. The death penalty serves no purpose other than the getting votes for politicians.
At least three different murder victims’ families have come to hear me speak. They said, “I’m against the death penalty now. I haven’t got any closure. Actually, it now gave me something more to think about. I had the date that my parents were murdered. Now I have to think of the date they executed the killer. I didn’t want that on my conscience. I just wanted … revenge.” I said, “Say it.” That’s what it is.
ARH: That’s why an apology is so important. Can you imagine the victims’ family seeing me on TV, hearing somebody say, “You need to read this book by this guy”? An apology would at least acknowledge, first and foremost, I’m not the person that did the horrible crime. Second, it would acknowledge that as human beings, we make mistakes. Now, I’m going to be honest with you — there was no mistake made in my case. I was convicted because I’m a black male. But I’m willing to let the state say, “We made a mistake 33 years ago.” Somebody ought to be honest enough to say to the victims’ family, “I work for the state and we’re sorry that we didn’t catch the person — but we did let the right man go.”
LS: In 2003, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois commuted all death sentences and pardoned a man named Madison Hobley, who had been wrongfully convicted for killing his wife and child. He spent 16 years on death row. After his release, he came to New York and told his story like you’re doing now. This law student came up to him and said, “In the end, the system worked. You got released.” Do you ever hear anything like that?
ARH: I’ve had people say, “Thank God you wasn’t executed, but don’t you think that that is the price one must pay to have law and order?” I say, you have a right to feel that way, but how would you feel about that price if I had been your father, if I was your brother? Then I’ve had people that comes up to me and they’ll say, “Mr. Hinton, I’m so sorry what happened to you, but the system worked.” I said, “If the system had worked, I never would have went in the first place.”
LS: Some people are really resistant to accepting that these kinds of injustices have happened, whether it’s our criminal justice system now or the history EJI has put on display in these monuments. Do you feel like white folks in Alabama are responding to this message?
ARH: It’s too soon to know. I’m going to be honest with you. White people in Alabama know what happened. White people would love for it to stay in the closet, but it’s open, it’s out in the open. I think the white people in Alabama need to own up to responsibility. “My ancestors were a part of what happened. I feel nothing like they did, but I want to apologize in whatever way, by bringing the races together.”
LS: Is there anything you wish you could have included in your book that you didn’t?
ARH: I wish that I could have included a lot more about the men on death row — why they ended up being where they are. I wish I could have shown how we failed them. I think it was about five of us [on death row] that graduated from high school. Everybody had quit in the seventh and eighth grade. Tell me that society didn’t play a part. We still fail them because we’re spending more money on prison than we are on school. Since I’ve been out, I’ve been to white schools to speak and I thought I was at a college. They’ve got labs — Bill Gates, here they come. I’m saying, “Imagine if you could put something like this in a black neighborhood.”
I think about lynching. They probably lynched one of the greatest scientists of modern times. They probably lynched someone that could come up with a cure for AIDS, Alzheimer’s, cancer. We don’t know what a person can be. Earlier, we spoke of Henry Hays. Henry could still be alive today and could be in the general population getting blacks and white to come together. He could say, “I was brought up to hate. I’m telling you, it serves no purpose. If anyone knows, I know. I lived it.” But society didn’t want him to be an advocate.
LS: You mentioned in your book that you still have a fear of going back to death row.
ARH: Yes. Every time I go somewhere and I’m by myself, the fear that police could get behind me and pull me over. The fear will always be there now. I don’t disrespect them, but I trust no police.
LS: I noticed your car outside — it has the license plate that says “Hinton” on it.
LS: So you still drive that car with your name on it — fear isn’t driving you.
ARH: I saved up money and had this door fixed and that window fixed. When I went to get the license plate, I said, “Is it possible I can get ‘Hinton’ put on it?” The lady said, “You sure can.” I put Hinton on it because I want people to realize that for so long, I was nobody. I want you to realize that I am somebody.