America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Man wrongly held on Alabama’s death row for 30 years tells story at Shepherd University

Anthony Ray Hinton, left, embraces Shannon Holliday, coordinator of Shepherd’s Common Reading program. Photo by Emily Daniels.
Anthony Ray Hinton, left, embraces Shannon Holliday, coordinator
of Shepherd’s Common Reading program. Photo by Emily Daniels.
SHEPHERDSTOWN — For 30 years, Anthony Ray Hinton spent his life in a tiny cell on death row in Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility for a crime he did not commit.

Now, after being exonerated just over a year ago, Hinton is traveling across the country to tell his story to others hoping to make a difference.


“I lived 30 years of pure hell. The only joy that I was able to get was the joy that my mind was allowed to bring to me,” Hinton said. “I wish I could tell you the state of Alabama made a mistake, but it was not a mistake. The justice system is not what you might think, and innocent men and women go to death row in this country every single day.”

In 1985, Hinton was convicted for the murders of two fast-food workers based on the testimony of ballistic experts appointed by the state of Alabama matching a gun owned by Hinton’s mother, with whom Hinton lived, to bullets recovered from the crime scene.

Shortly thereafter, Hinton, who is black, was sent to death row by an all-white jury for two counts of first-degree murder, and Hinton said he believes race played a vital role in his sentencing and is still alive today.

“I wish I could tell you that race played no part in (me) spending 30 years on Alabama death row, but if I told you anything other than that, I would be telling you a lie. Race played every part that it could play in my sentence to death row,” Hinton said. “From what I’ve seen, and what I’ve heard, I believe that racism is worse now than ever before. I want you to know that racism is what’s really going to destroy this world, but I will not stand here and tell you that any time a black does something that he or she is innocent any more than I will tell you a white person is.”

Although Hinton was convicted for two murders, he said he was at work when the murders occurred and got his supervisor to vouch for him, yet the court system still found Hinton guilty. Years later, a new trial would reveal overwhelmingly that the bullet recovered at the crime scene did not match the bullet of Hinton’s mother’s gun, but it took decades and the case’s trip to the United States Supreme Court to prove his innocence. Hinton also found Bryan Stevenson, who believed in Hinton’s case and didn’t give up after several failed attempts at obtaining Hinton’s freedom.

Hinton said spending a lot of his life on death row showed him that the court system is broken.

“The pure fact that I am here can tell you that the system is flawed. I did not get out on technicalities, I got out on truth,” Hinton said. “Now, I feel that I am obligated (to speak) for those who have been left behind … to tell people that I deserve, that you deserve, to at least hear the truth.”

Stevenson, who originally found an attorney from Boston to represent Hinton, ended up being the one who helped free him. The Boston lawyer told Hinton his goal was to get him life without parole, but Hinton said his mother didn’t raise him to admit to something he did not do, that he’d rather die than lie about his case.

In the end, however, Stevenson came to represent Hinton and found ballistic experts who would ultimately prove his innocence. While the process seemed slow-going, Hinton said a major obstacle almost caused him to give up altogether.

“I got news that the love of my life had passed. I called Mr. Stevenson and said, ‘My mother is deceased, and I don’t give a damn about this case anymore. You can drop it and put your energy into something else. I don’t care because now my mother is no longer here,” Hinton said. “I hung up the phone without even saying ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye.’ Just as I hung up the phone, I could hear my mother in my ear telling me how disappointed she was in me because she brought me up to fight when there’s a reason to fight.”

On April 3, 2015, Hinton was able to walk away from death row as a free man.


These words and others were spoken to a packed auditorium in Shepherd University’s Frank Center Thursday night, and there was not a dry eye among the shocked-into-silence crowd as a tearful Hinton told his story.

Hinton’s appearance in Shepherdstown was part of Shepherd University’s Common Reading program, and this year’s book selection is “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson, who helped free Hinton.

Shannon Holliday, common reading program coordinator, said being able to hear Hinton’s speech was truly an honor.

“I think it sheds a lot of light on different flaws in the criminal justice system in America and issues surrounding race, along with mass incarceration and the death penalty. His case is so relevant and so recent, and it took decades. He spent more time in prison than most of our students have been alive,” Holliday said. “I think it’s really eye-opening to hear the story from someone who’s lived it because it makes it more personal, and it has a greater impact than just having them read the book.”


Now that Hinton has been living his life off death row for over a year now, he says adjusting has been a difficult process.

The house he shared with his mother before being convicted is where he resides.

“I went out and I purchased some of the nicest furniture that you could perhaps buy. I was sleeping in a fetal position for 30 years, so I went out and I purchased a king-sized bed. The thing about that king-sized bed, I have yet to be able to stretch out in it. I cannot go to sleep until I sleep in a fetal position,” Hinton said. “Every morning at 2:45, I am up because every morning for 30 years I had to eat breakfast at 3 a.m. Once I’m up, I cannot go back to sleep.”

Hinton said other things will take some getting used to as well.

“In my house, I have a shower, and I can take 3, 4, 5 — however many showers I want a day, but I only shower every other day (because that’s how it was on death row). Life passed me by for 30 years.”

Although Hinton said if anyone has a reason to hate, it’s him, he has not allowed the hatred he initially felt to consume him in his life now.

“I don’t have any hatred in my heart for those men (who convicted me). Before I ever thought I might be free, I had asked God to take that hatred from me. I didn’t want any of that hate to ever consume me,” Hinton said.

Now, Hinton jokes and laughs and can talk with joy about life. Hinton told several funny stories Thursday night, including a time when his friend took him to visit his mother’s grave after he was released. Hinton heard a “white lady’s voice” from a GPS, and Hinton jokingly said he thought his friend had set him up to go back to jail.

In the midst of everything, though, in tragedy, sadness, in years he will never get back, Hinton’s spirit has remained filled with light.

“Every night at 10:30, regardless of where I’m at, I look up and I try to see the stars and the moon. Every time it rains … I walk through the rain … because for 30 years, rain was not allowed to touch my head, and I continue to walk in the rain to this day,” Hinton said. “The things you take for granted, I see beauty in everything that God has created simply because I lost it for 30 years.”

Source: The Journal, Emily Daniels, October 7, 2016

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