The Groton School community came face to face with the inequities of the American judicial system through a painful and personal lecture by Anthony Ray Hinton, who was wrongly imprisoned on Alabama’s death row for twenty-eight years. He was put there in 1986 by an all-white jury and an overzealous prosecutor for two murders that he didn’t commit. It gets worse: many of those who fought to convict him knew or suspected that he was not guilty.
The presentation, part of Groton’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration, provided a uniquely intimate window into Mr. Hinton’s life—an entirely different experience than seeing his story highlighted in the documentary, Just Mercy, which most students and faculty have seen. Speaking slowly and deliberately via Zoom, Mr. Hinton described a criminal justice system “that treats you better if you are rich and guilty opposed to if you are poor and innocent.”
The injustice of his case was starkly clear even as Mr. Hinton was being arrested in 1985: a detective ticked off the reasons Mr. Hinton would be convicted, despite the lack of evidence to charge him. The #1 reason: he is Black. In addition, said the officer, a white man would say that Mr. Hinton shot the two victims, and there would be a white prosecutor and an all-white jury. “Do you understand what that means?” Mr. Hinton recalls the detective saying. “He repeated the words: conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.”
Mr. Hinton also remembers being told: “I don’t care if you did it or didn’t do it. I’m going to see that you get convicted.”
After the accused’s alibi checked out, the charges of robbery, kidnapping, and murder weren’t dropped. Instead, they were brazenly escalated, and Mr. Hinton found himself charged with two counts of capital murder. He was advised, “‘Why don’t you take this rap for one of your home boys who truly committed the crime?’ And with tears coming down my face I looked at that detective, and I said, ‘There is not a home boy in this world that I would take a rap for like that.”
His innocence was a poorly kept secret. After Mr. Hinton’s conviction and death sentence, he recalls a prosecutor saying, “perhaps a little louder than he intended,” that they hadn’t gotten the right Black man, but had “at least” gotten a Black man off the street. Settled into a prison cell that he compared to the size of a bathroom, Mr. Hinton did not speak to anyone for three years. He communicated, when necessary, in writing.
Eventually, he became a teacher of sorts. One of very few inmates with a high school diploma, he received permission to start a death row book club. He especially hoped that one particular inmate—a member of the Ku Klux Klan—would join. He did, and showed up for the first book discussion, on Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, with six pages of notes. For the first time, Mr. Hinton said, the men felt they were “part of something.”
After three years, when all of the men on death row asked the warden to join the book club, he said he had to shut it down. “I never thought that the book club would catch on with every man there in prison,” Mr. Hinton said. “Books gave every man a way out. They made them go to places they’d never seen; they touched them in ways they never thought they could be touched.”
A man of deep faith, Mr. Hinton said he believes God put him in prison to teach the KKK member about love, to help him unlearn the hatred he had been fed since birth. Over fifteen years, he tried “to undo what his father, his community, has programmed him to do.”
Eventually an attorney from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) showed up, but four years later offered only a reprieve to life without parole. While that would have removed Mr. Hinton from death row, he could not admit to a crime he didn’t commit. “I said, life without parole is for guilty people . . . I’m not ready to die and I don’t want to die for a crime that I didn’t commit, but I could never stand up and tell a lie.” Mr. Hinton was so honest that during his arrest, when officers asked if he owned a firearm, he said he didn’t but then offered that his mother kept a gun for snakes—a gun that was then erroneously, and purposefully, associated with the crimes.
Mr. Hinton’s life story began to change, albeit slowly, after he wrote to EJI attorney Bryan Stevenson and persuaded him to take his case. “The day that I shook this lawyer’s hand, I knew; something came over me,” said Mr. Hinton of the EJI attorney. “I knew that God had sent me his number-one lawyer.”
What should have been a pivotal moment came when Mr. Stevenson hired ballistics experts. Mr. Hinton had asked him to hire the best—insisting on having white men from the South because he knew who would have credibility in Alabama. The ballistics experts testified that the bullets did not match the murder weapon, but a string of state attorneys general refused to examine the ballistics evidence. “Was it because of the color of my skin,” he wondered aloud, “or was it because they already knew that the bullets didn’t match? I sat on Alabama’s death row for another sixteen years.”
Mr. Stevenson stayed with the case that long, taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously vacated the conviction and called for a new trial. The state, empty-handed, dropped all charges and, in 2015, Mr. Hinton walked out of prison. He had watched fifty-four of his fellow death row inmates march to the execution chamber.
He said his hardest adjustment after nearly thirty years was to new technology—he still marvels at all that a smartphone can do. One story relates a car ride with a friend when suddenly, “a white lady said, ‘in a tenth of a mile, turn right.’” He had never heard a GPS system before.
Details of Mr. Hinton’s life story unfolded throughout his lecture and a question-and-answer session afterward. “Where do I get justice from?” he said in a rare show of frustration, removing his glasses to wipe his eyes. “Thirty years in a cage for something that they knew from day one that I hadn’t committed. No one has been able to tell me, where’s my justice?”
The state of Alabama is 27 percent African American; its prison population, however, is disproportionately African American. But the system, he said, is not broken. “The system is working exactly the way it was designed to work. And the system was designed to put men of color in prison.”
He urged his listeners to fight the death penalty. “As long as we have a justice system that is racist,” he said, “we are bound to put innocent men and women to death.” He wiped his eyes again, then urged voters to put people in office who believe in equal justice.
Director of Inclusion Outreach Carolyn Chica, who arranged to bring the speaker to Groton, first learned about Mr. Hinton when she heard Mr. Stevenson speak at a People of Color Conference. “Groton students will go on to make a big impact on the world, so it is important to share different narratives that will inspire them,” said Ms. Chica, who advises the Cultural Alliance student group, which helped plan MLK Day. “If one student walks away with a different opinion on the death sentence, for example, then the talk was successful.” The Cultural Alliance presented twenty-six student-run workshops after the morning lecture, on topics from climate justice to anti-Semitism to the stigmatization of infectious diseases.
Mr. Hinton concluded his talk by telling Groton students, “I truly believe I’ve met all of you all for a reason. I truly believe you will take what you heard today and make a difference.”
The speaker, who wrote his story in The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, said he thanks God for the bad things that have happened to him—and the lessons they’ve held—not the good things. Still, he mused about the day when he finally meets his Maker. “When I see God face to face, I’m going to ask God, ‘What took you so long?’”