Ray Hinton was mowing his mother’s lawn on a hot summer’s day in Alabama during the year 1985. He wasn’t scared when the police came around to arrest him – because he was sure that he didn’t commit any crime.
What he wasn’t aware of was that nearly 30 years would pass by before he got his freedom. He wasn’t aware that he’d spend 28 years on death row, observing how his fellow prisoners were being taken to the electric chair, which was situated just 30 yards from his cell.
Hinton’s is a textbook scenario of a failure of justice. Hinton was both a black a poor man and he had a small opportunity of winning his first trial, regardless of obvious proof indicating to his innocence. He had to go through the humiliation and psychological torment of solitary imprisonment on death row until a persistent lawyer fought for several years to guarantee his release.
Although he encountered situations that would break a lot of us, Hinton discovered a type of freedom, hope, and life on death row. He had extreme compassion for his fellow prisoners, found his own strong imagination and, especially, having hope.
1 – Hinton was brought up in Alabama against a background of racial discrimination and pressure.
During the start of the 1970s in Alabama, Hinton, as well as his friends, got ready to attend a white school, after discrimination had been stopped in the state. His mother spoke to him and warned him not to attempt to talk to any white girls. Keep your face down. Be respectful to your teachers and abide by the rules. Get home quickly.
In Alabama, during the 1970s, growing up as a black man signified facing continuous racism.
Alabama had been an extremely segregated state, therefore, it was just the start of the decade that a black person could go to a restaurant, stay in a counter and request for a burger. And during the mid-seventies, you could see that the servers weren’t cheerful about the new plan.
Regardless of the end of segregation laws, during the 1970s were a decade when the danger of violence was chronic. Hinton recalls a time they bombed a church, and he as well as the other children had to remain at home. His mother cautioned him to run if he sees a car that is full of white men and if they ever pulled up near him.
Situations at school weren’t that better. At a time, while playing basketball for his school, Hinton scored 30 points in a half – a school record. He went to the court to scream that he believed were “Hin-ton! Hin-ton!” However, he was a bit confused when he noticed that the opposition crowd was saying the exact thing. That was when he realized; they were really chanting a racial insult. Immediately, his pride became a shame.
In spite of growing up in this surrounding, Hinton had a happy upbringing. He was raised by his mother well, though he was by no chance an angel.
Hinton stole a car in the year 1975. It was really dangerous hitchhiking as a black person, and he had to get around. He wanted to work just like the majority of young men. And he craved to go out and meet women.
He drove around with this car for about two years until he got to know that the police were searching for him. He had felt guilt rising inside of him for a while, and he told his mother, who said to him she raised him to accept his crimes. He gave himself to the police and served some jail time.
He felt relief after he confessed his guilt. However, he didn’t like the time he spent in jail. The food wasn’t good, his cell reeked and he detested the lack of freedom. He decided that prison was not for him.
2 – Hinton was arrested for offenses he didn’t do and experienced deliberate police racism.
On the 23rd of February, 1985, the assistant manager of a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, was shot two times during a robbery and he died. On the 3rd of July, a worker at Captain D’s restaurant died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head in a related robbery. During the early morning of the 25th of July, a manager of Quincy’s steakhouse named Sidney Smotherman was shot in another robbery; however, he recuperated from his injuries.
Smotherman labeled his assailant as a black man who was nearly six feet tall, had a weight of about 190 pounds with a mustache. During the time of Smotherman’s shooting, Hinton was doing a night shift at his warehouse job, and he had been signed in by his supervisor.
Six days following the Smotherman shooting, Hinton was mowing his mother’s lawn in the fiery sunshine. He gazed up only to see two white policemen looking at him, their hands hovering over their guns. However, he wasn’t scared. Why should he be? He didn’t do anything wrong.
They arrested him and took him into custody.
They put a blank sheet of paper in front of him when he was at the station. They told him to sign the paper and that the policemen would write his rights on it, hence, people were aware they had read him his rights. He declined to sign. He wasn’t senseless.
At a point, a police officer said to Hinton that he didn’t matter if he had committed the offense or not, because if he hadn’t, one of his “brothers” – meaning, some other black man – had done it. The police officer said to Hinton there were five causes he’d be found guilty. He was a black man; a white man was going to recognize him; the district attorney would be white a person; the judge would be a white person, and the jury would be white. Then the police officer grinned.
As the trial got closer, things didn’t seem good. The police saw an old gun that is for Hinton’s mother. A neighbor witnessed a policeman take the gun, inspect it and put a cloth in the barrel. When he removed the cloth, it had a lot of dust. Hinton was aware that it hadn’t been used in 25 years; however, police forensics said that the bullets from the three crime scenes corresponded with the gun.
A detector justified Hinton’s claims of innocence; however, the prosecution used its right to decline this to be utilized as a proof court. Eventually, Smotherman chose him – incorrectly – out of a photo lineup.
The fact that he had a rigid explanation? No one cared.
3 – Hinton, who didn’t have any money, was disappointed by his lawyer and was found guilty of two cases of murder.
Hinton had been raised to have faith in justice; therefore, he naturally had faith his lawyer could remove him from this mess. He was soon to be let down.
At the core of the issue were race and money.
Hinton didn’t have any money; therefore, he was given a lawyer named Sheldon Perhacs, who would be paid $1,000 for working on the case. Hinton overheard him stutter that he didn’t attend law school only to take on unpaid work. When Hinton said to Perhacs that he was not guilty, Perhacs answered that all of you are always saying that. It was very clear that by all of you he was talking about black people.
Perhacs said that he needed about $15,000 to have an accurate forensics expert to challenge the state’s results on the gun. However, that wasn’t possible, therefore, they got the top expert they were able to afford, Andrew Payne. Payne had done a series of tests and established that the bullets didn’t correspond with the gun.
However, under the prosecution’s reexamination, Payne’s credibility was damaged. He was compelled to confess that, when he got to the Forensics laboratory, he didn’t understand how to make use of the kind of comparison microscope they had there. He’d struggled to identify the bullet, to begin with. Afterward, the prosecutors questioned him if he had an eye problem, and Payne had to accept that he had just one eye.
Reggie White who was a witness that hated Hinton lied on oath in order to assist put him away. The cause was basically because when he was younger, Reggie had asked a girl out who had preferred Hinton. Then, Reggie worked at Smotherman’s restaurant, and in court, he deceitfully stated that Hinton had, a few weeks before the attack, questioned him on closing time and how the restaurant was doing. Reggie was receiving a sum of $5,000 as a prize for helping capture the killer, however, at the trial, no one asked if this financial incentive was right.
Reggie, as well as the police, had lied. Even firearms experts for the state lied or done a bad job. Hinton’s lawyer didn’t call character witnesses and hadn’t inquired tough questions.
The jury just used two hours to agree on the judgment: guilty. And for less than an hour to agree on his sentencing which is death.
4 – Life on death row is without self-respect and freedom.
On the 17th of December 1986, Hinton was taken away from his cell at the county jail. He was strip-searched, chained and he was cuffed at his ankles and wrists and then they drove him for three hours to Holman prison. He was walked through a prison door. On the door was the written words “death row.” This was his new place.
Hinton’s cell was just seven feet high and five feet wide. It only had a metal toilet, a metal sink, a shelf, a bed, and a King James Bible. Nothing more.
They were given breakfast at 3 a.m., lunch at 10 a.m., dinner at 2 p.m. Breakfast was powdered eggs, a rock-hard biscuit and a spoonful of something that looked like jelly. Lunch and dinner contained a tasteless blob of distorted meat that some mentioned that was a horse. Hinton was always hungry daily.
He had his bath every second day, at times in the evening, at times at midnight – there was no plan. He bathed with another inmate, with two guards watching all the time. The shower was either ice cold or boiling hot all the time, and was just for two minutes. One time in a day, he was taken to a separate cage in the yard, to work out or stroll to and fro.
In the day, death row was hard to withstand. During the night, it was just like a horror movie.
Rats and creatures rushed everywhere on the floor. Prisoners regularly cried, shouted or groaned – one might stop, however, another person would begin. The night was just the time an inmate could cry with secrecy. At times, someone would laugh maniacally. At the start, Hinton didn’t sleep for more than 15 minutes at a go.
These were the situations Hinton had to encounter, in spite of knowing his innocence. In a condition of shock, he withdrew inside himself for three years and hardly said a word to his guards or his fellow inmates during that whole time.
Hinton had been optimistic of a fast and successful appeal against his deliberately unfair sentence. However, in 1988, two years when he got to death row, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals confirmed his sentence. Freedom would need to wait.
5 – On death row, the killing was a chronic and frightening threat.
The odor of killing and burning flesh is like nothing else. It’s a smoky, rotten combination of vomit, terrible waste, and feces. And in a prison with nearly no ventilation, the odor of death remains.
Michael Lindsey was one of the first men to be killed during Hinton’s imprisonment and the man was in the cell underneath Hinton’s. Prisoners get one month’s notice of their death. In the month prior to Lindsey’s death, he kept crying. He cried both in his cell and in the yard. The sentenced man had to sit and observe how the guards practiced their habit for the day of his death, parading down the row, gathering a guard acting to be Lindsey and directing him to a holding cell.
Lindsey wept as the guards practiced switching on the generator for the electric chair, and he wept as the prison lights sparkled under the pressure of the electricity.
Hinton saw and heard this whole thing. There was no choice for him– death row was a little place, and the death chamber was only 30 feet from his cell.
When a sentenced man was taken to the chair, the other inmates made as much noise as possible. Some of them wanted to protest, and they shouted at the guards, calling them killers. Others only shouted like animals. For Hinton, he basically wanted the dying man to hear the noise and realize that in this darkest instant, buckled to a chair with a black bag covering his head, he wasn’t alone.
When the day of Lindsey’s death came, and the odor wandered into the row, Hinton spent the day vomiting. He was physically and emotionally sick. One of the guards mocked him when he noticed how Hinton’s reacted. The guard mentioned that one of these days, everybody will be smelling you as well.
On the 19th of June 1989, Hinton got a letter from Perhacs his attorney. The letter said that an appeal to get a new trial had been rejected and that Perhacs could not represent him anymore. Justice looked far away.
6 – Hinton discovered that, regardless of their several differences, everyone on death row had a mutual thing more than not.
Living on death row in a private cell, you don’t essentially know a lot about the other prisoners around you.
One day, Hinton was surprised to know that one of his fellow prisoners, someone he considered as a friend, had done the last killing of a black person in the United States. In 1981, Henry Hays had abducted, beaten and wounded a young black man, and hung him from a tree. He was part of the white supremacist hate organization, the Ku Klux Klan, and his parents were part of the group’s leadership.
Hinton cried out to Hays from his cell, saying he had only realized who he was. There was quietness until Hays screamed back that all the things his parents had taught him – all the prejudgment and hatred against blacks – was all lie. Hinton pondered. Then he answered. Hinton said he’d been fortunate. He’d also learned all the things from his mother; however, she’d taught him to love people, and not to detest them, and to forgive and have empathy. He told him that he felt sad that Hays didn’t have the exact experience.
During the next visiting day that followed, Hays was with his parents, and he told Hinton to come over. Hays said to his parents that he wanted them to see Ray Hinton, who he considered as his best friend. Hay’s mom smiled slightly; however, his father wouldn’t even shake hands with Hinton’s and didn’t utter any word.
Hinton went back to his own visitor a friend of his, Lester, who asked him what the discussions had been about. Hinton mentioned that it was about development.
On death row, Hinton realized that what you have in common with your fellow prisoners is stronger than what separates you. Whether black, white, innocent or guilty, everybody is struggling to survive, and struggling to accept how they got to the row.
Hays was killed in June 1997. That was the first time ever in more than 85 years that a white man had been killed for murdering a black man, and his death was an important moment in the outside world. However, to Hinton, that was only the death of yet another friend.
7 – By imagining and through books, Hinton discovered a type of freedom on death row.
A lot of prisoners fantasize about escaping; however, that never occurs. Hinton was fortunate. He discovered methods to escape, although he was never able to get out of the prison.
Hinton found the influence of his imagination while he was on death row.
While he was on his small bed, one day he pondered on where he would go if he ever left prison. He fantasized about climbing into a private jet that was waiting for him outside the prison. A flight attendant gave him champagne and said to him that they were going to London, where the Queen of England was waiting to see him. Hours after, he was on a plush sofa, drinking tea, talking to the Queen about his experience on death row.
Hinton was eventually shoved out of his dreams by a guard screaming that he had a visitor, and he got to know that he’d been wandering in dreamland for two days. The thought that he could escape, at least in his mind, that felt good.
Years after, Hinton withdrew more and more into a world of fantasies. He played for the Yankees, defeated Wimbledon, got married to Halle Berry an actress and divorced her in favor of Sandra Bullock. It wasn’t the exact thing as being free, however, it was a method to leave death row – and that was something.
One day, Hinton had knowledge on how he could assist everyone on the row to find a tiny escape. He wanted to begin a book club. He said to the warden it was to make the prisoners silent and peaceful. However, he actually wanted to assist them to escape and make them become smarter.
The warden approved, and after a few weeks, two copies of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain came in. For like a month, seven of the inmates passed the books to one another. When it was time for the book club meeting, the seven men were permitted to meet in a room. It was the first time they could speak with one another without having to scream from cell to cell.
Talking on the book offered the prisoners freedom. For the first time, they spoke about something different from legal issues, lawyers and if they would ever leave the prison. They were taken to a different world.
The book club was a freedom from the daily misery of death row; however, that wasn’t entire freedom. A prisoner called Larry was the first-ever member of the book club to be killed. During the next meeting of the club, Hinton left Larry’s chair sitting blank.
8 – A determined lawyer dedicated to justice offered Hinton new hope.
By 1997, Hinton had gone through few lawyers and a series of unsuccessful legal trials to get a retrial. His new lawyer had told him he believed he could get him an offer: life without bail.
Hinton’s feedback? He dismissed him. He had no concern in serving life in prison for a crime he didn’t do.
He was aware of who he wanted to represent him precisely, but: a determined and kind lawyer called Bryan Stevenson who fought for death-row prisoners.
Stevenson directed the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and Hinton had heard about him in 1989. During that year, a Vietnam veteran had been killed, and Hinton heard that Stevenson, who was the inmate’s legal counsel, had remained with his client until the end, fighting to stop his killing.
In 1988, Hinton convinced Stevenson to take his case and for the following 16 years, they worked through an unending series of analyses in different courts, looking for a method to force a retrial and guarantee Hinton’s freedom.
Stevenson extracted rock-solid proof of issues with Hinton’s arrest and trial.
He discovered that the police had forced witnesses to state that Hinton was at the place of the crime. Besides, Smotherman – the injured restaurant manager – had recognized Hinton as his attacker from a photo of Hinton, with Hinton’s initials engraved on it. This was only when detectives had told Smotherman Hinton’s name and said to him that he was a suspect. Meaning, the identification was compromised.
Moreover, Perhacs – Hinton’s first lawyer – had been friends with the state’s prosecutor, and the prosecutor had been proven guilty twice of illegal discrimination against black people when making jury choices.
Furthermore, Stevenson discovered three ballistics experts to examine the evidence of the gun. At Hinton’s own idea, they were completely white men: two Southerners and an expert from the FBI. They were the accurate type of people to convince an Alabama court. The three of them examined the evidence, and all said that the bullets didn’t correspond with Hinton’s mother’s gun.
However, regardless of the weight of proof in favor of Hinton’s innocence, progress was extremely slow.
9 – Finally, a Supreme Court ruling offered Hinton the development he had been longing for.
Courts do not operate fast, specifically when they are looking at appeals from a death-row prisoner in Alabama.
It didn’t help that the state of Alabama was keen to have Hinton imprisoned. The state actually did not want to accept its mistake. For them to agree to their error would mean to accept that the state had intentionally and purposely sent an innocent black man to death row.
Just before a vital hearing was scheduled in 2002, the office of Alabama’s attorney general summoned a writ trying to terminate it. The attorney general mentioned that for them to hear the case that would probably waste two to three days’ value of taxpayer money. When this was abortive, and the hearing was brought to court, the vital question was if Hinton had experienced an insufficient defense.
The state then claimed that there was nothing mistaken with Hinton’s initial ballistics expert. Sixteen years before, in the initial trial, they had defamed the expert’s status. They were now arguing that he had been perfectly trustworthy from the start; hence, Hinton had not experienced an insufficient defense, and there was no point looking at the view of the new, more convincing experts that Stevenson had employed.
Eventually, the hearing was futile. The judge was on the case for two years, vindicating no judgment, actually not bothered that the destiny of a man on death row depended mostly on him. Eventually, the judge passed an order that was in favor of the state.
A lot of years passed. Hinton observed more men being taken to their deaths and it was difficult to keep his faith in the future.
In 2013, Stevenson and Hinton finally decided to go to the US Supreme Court to claim his innocence. It was a risky choice because if the court overruled their plea, their verdict would be final. Another court would never hear the case. However, Hinton didn’t want to use another ten years fighting the case with lower courts, therefore, in October 2013, Stevenson filed at the Supreme Court. It was their final trial at justice.
In February of the next year, Hinton got a call from Stevenson. It was actually good news –as a matter of fact, better than what they had anticipated. The Supreme Court had solidly ruled that Hinton’s attorney had given a constitutionally poor performance –meaning, he had really failed him – and the state courts need to review if these failings had prejudiced Hinton’s trial.
This wasn’t the conclusion of Hinton’s trial, however, it was the start of fresh hope for the future.
10 – Hinton stepped freely into the Alabama daylight after the state withdrew the charges made against.
In February 2015, Hinton had used 29 years in a private cell on death row in Holman prison. He’d saw 54 men walk past his cell door to their deaths.
When he was told to go back to the county jail to wait for his retrial, he left his cell, Hinton shouted out to his fellow prisoners.
Not a lot of things on death row calls for celebration, however, the last few days had been a time of happiness. Hinton had given out his television, books, food and the additional clothes he had to his fellow prisoners. He then screamed out that he was leaving. He said it took him 30 years to arrive at that point. Perhaps for them, it would require 31, or 32 years. However, they shouldn’t give up hope.
The other inmates hit their cell bars, and shouted “Hin-ton! Hin-ton!” For a minute, Hinton remembered his high-school basketball match, during the time the mass had repeated a racial insult instead of his name. He thought about the crazy mixture of disaster, sorrow, and joy in his life.
Back in county jail, Hinton held on for months for his fresh trial, experiencing more delays still.
At a point, there was a delay for the reason that the district attorney’s office misplaced the gun and the bullets from the initial case, and ridiculously accused Stevenson of stealing them. The state was still resolute against Hinton’s release.
Hinton was told to make a call to Stevenson one day, and while they were talking, he noticed the excitement in his voice. Stevenson stated that, without a lot of words to anybody, the state had silently filed papers to say they were dropping the charges against Hinton’s. Hinton was going to get released on Friday morning.
Hinton fell on the floor and cried with relief.
On that Friday which was the 3rd of April 2015, Hinton was wearing a smart black suit that Stevenson had gotten him, Hinton went outside.
Hinton gave his best friend, Lester a hug, and hugged his nieces and sisters. As he watched the faces of the people around him, he got to know that none of them could tell him what he should and shouldn’t or do.
He was free at last.
11 – In the world outside, Hinton has discovered uneasy liberty and a dedication to forgiveness.
As Lester drove him away from the prison, Hinton flipped a bit when a woman’s voice told them to turn left. Hinton asked who the woman was and where she was hiding. Lester looked at him blankly for a moment and laughed, he then told him that it was a GPS system. After 30 years of being in prison, Hinton had a lot of things to learn.
During his first night at home, while he lay down in the softest bed he’d ever felt, his breath started to come faster. He began to feel anxious. He stood up and ran to the bathroom. While he sat on the floor of the bathroom, attempting to soothe himself, he realized that the bathroom was the exact size of his prison cell. He stretched out on the floor, he put his head on a bath mat and decided to pass the night there. That felt like home.
Having for once had his freedom taken away from him, Hinton now makes a regular excuse for himself, out of dread that the exact thing could occur again. He intentionally keeps a record of each day – walking in front of security cameras, calling people in order to tell them where he is, and regularly taking receipts anywhere he shops.
However, strangely, Hinton has accepted forgiveness.
The man who accused Hinton, probably aware that Hinton was innocent, published a book before his death. In his book, he mentioned that he could identify that Hinton was an evil, clever killer only by staring at him. Hinton has also forgiven the prosecutor, just like how he forgave his first lawyer, his judges and all the other people who assisted in putting him away. His mother raised him up and taught him to forgive, as well as his experience on death row.
Finally, death row taught Hinton that, it’s important how we decide to live our lives. It important if we decide to love or to hate, to assist people or to harm them. And it’s important since, a day, your life might just transform forever in a single moment. And you’ll never expect it.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton, Lara Love Hardin Book Review
The only crime of Hinton’s was that he was a poor black man in Alabama. The state wanted to kill him and was unconcerned in seeing beyond the color of his skin to notice his innocence. He didn’t give up on hope, and he discovered a type of life and freedom on death row. However, the fact is that an innocent man doesn’t need to experience what Hinton went through.