“They Couldn’t Take My Soul”: Anthony Ray Hinton on His Exoneration After 30 Years on Death Row

Days after being exonerated and freed from an Alabama prison, Anthony Ray Hinton recounts how he got through nearly 30 years on death row as an innocent man. Hinton was convicted of murdering two fast-food managers in separate robberies in 1985, based on scant evidence that later turned out to be false. Hinton is said to be among the longest-serving death row prisoners ever to be freed after presenting evidence of innocence. Hinton joins us along with his attorney, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, who says race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice. “This is a very powerful demonstration of the critique of the American criminal justice system, which we contend treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Stevenson says.

TRANSCRIPT:

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Alabama, where a prisoner, Anthony Ray Hinton, was released, Friday, after spending nearly 30 years on death row.

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: For all of those that say that we believe in justice, this is the case to start showing. Because I shouldn’t sit on death row 30 years. All they had to do was test the gun. But, when you think you’re high and mighty and you’re above the law, you don’t have to answer to nobody. But, I’ve got news for you. Everybody that played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God. That’s all I have to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Ray Hinton was convicted of murdering two fast-food managers in separate robberies in 1985. He was 29 years old at the time. The only evidence linking Hinton to the crimes were bullets that allegedly had markings matching a revolver that belonged to Hinton’s mother. There were no fingerprints or eyewitness testimony. After Hinton was convicted, subsequent tests found the bullets at the scene could not be matched to the gun he was accused of using.

Last year, the US Supreme Court threw out his conviction, concluding Hinton had been inadequately represented at trial. Hinton could not afford a defense lawyer. His court-appointed attorney used as a witness a firearms expert he knew to be incompetent. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, which won his release, Hinton is among the longest-serving death row prisoners ever to be freed after presenting evidence of innocence.

We go now to Montgomery, Alabama, where we’re joined by Anthony Ray Hinton himself, just freed. As well as Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the attorney who has worked on death row penalty cases in the deep south for decades and represented Anthony Ray Hinton since 1999. He is the author of the book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” His book was just nominated for the Andrew Carnegie medal for excellence run by the American Library Association. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Anthony Hinton, let’s begin with you, how does it feel to be free?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: Well, it feels wonderful. A little scared at times, especially when I’ve been out to the mall and I’m not used to being around that many people at one – at a certain setting.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you, Anthony, in prison, when you heard that you would be freed? When was it?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: I was out in the day room at the Birmingham Jefferson County Jail. And just got through talking to one of the attorneys from EJI, and he told me to call Mr. Stevenson right away. And I called Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Stevenson gave me the news, the wonderful news.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan Stevenson, why did you take on this case? How did you hear about Anthony Ray Hinton in prison, for, at the point you take it on, I mean, he was freed after 30 years – how did you hear about the case?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, we actually monitor almost all of the cases involving people sentenced to death here in Alabama. There is no public defender system. There is no right to counsel. We’ve got people on death row who are literally dying for legal assistance. And so, we’re pretty familiar with all of the cases.

We had recruited some lawyers to represent Mr. Hinton, but it is a very difficult thing to take on. If you don’t have a lot of resources and if you’re far away, it is hard. So, we had known about the case for some time. Mr. Hinton and I had actually met many years earlier. When his lawyers could no longer represent him, we decided to take the case on, and I got personally involved. I just have to say how extraordinary it is to be sitting next to my friend and my client. We have spent so many hours together at home in prison, but we have never been able to sit together in suits and a place like this. I have to say it is an extraordinary, extraordinary feeling.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bryan, can you explain this case? You took in on in 1999. Go back to 1985 and what happened, what evidence wasn’t presented, what of his wasn’t presented.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, in many ways, this is a very powerful demonstration of the critique of the American criminal justice system which we contend treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. There was a great deal of concern in the community because these restaurant managers had been murdered. They had these bullets. They falsely claimed that these bullets could be linked to a single weapon. They then falsely claimed that that weapon was Mr. Hinton’s. Because his lawyer was only paid $1600 to represent him, he couldn’t get an expert that was competent to disprove that. He got someone with visually impaired, a civil engineer, and the jury convicted Mr. Hinton. Had he had the resources to get the kind of legal help he needed, he would have never been convicted.

The real problem was years later, when we developed the evidence that showed that these bullets could not be matched to a single gun and that it wasn’t Mr. Hinton’s gun, the state then refused for 16 years to even retest the evidence. And that, for me, was the most distressing part of this case. It was indifference, it was irresponsible. It was really unconscionable that they chose to risk executing an innocent person over risking the perception that they were somehow making a mistake or not being tough on crime. And they fought us tooth and nail. And I have to say, it was quite an unlikely and rare occurrence that we could get the United States Supreme Court to intervene when we did. Had they not intervened, I think the risk of a wrongful execution would have been very, very high. There is been no accountability. The experts have not been held accountable. The prosecutors have not been held accountable. There’s been no apology. There has been no offer of any kind of assistance. And I think this case is a really shameful example of all the reforms that are desperately needed.

I might also say, Amy, that race was a factor here, too. I can’t leave that out. The investigators who worked on this case would been previously charged in federal court for torturing black prisoners. They had been using cattle prods to coerce statements out of black prisoners. The prosecutor claimed that Mr. Hinton was innocent by looking at him he said he could tell he was evil, just by looking at his face. That prosecutor had been reversed many times for excluding African-Americans from serving on juries. Mr. Hinton was convicted in part because of the burden of – the presumption of guilt that gets assigned to too many black and brown people in this country when they are accused of a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Anthony Ray Hinton, you were on death row for nearly 30 years. Did you ever face an execution date?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: No, I didn’t. Thank God, I didn’t ever face an execution date. I thought about it a lot of time. But, like I stated before, I just had faith that God would not let me be executed for something that I didn’t do.

AMY GOODMAN: Before 1999, that was some well over a decade after you are in prison death row, before EJI, the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson took your case on, did you ever think that your verdict would be overturned? Who could you appeal to?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: Well, to be honest with you, when you is placed on death row, you have to have strong faith. And the lawyer that I had that represented me during trial, once the case go through the Alabama criminal court of appeal and you lose there, you on your own. So, I had wrote Mr. Stevenson and asked for assistance from them. He got me an attorney out of Boston. To be perfectly honest with you, the lawyer from Boston come down and talk to me and he stayed on the case maybe a year or so, a couple years. And it just wasn’t working out the way I thought the case should be going. I remember specifically, he told me he was trying to get me life without. And I told him get that for someone that is guilty, I’m innocent. I need someone that would believe in me and would fight for my life as hard as they could, and that is when Mr. Stevenson came in.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of money. I mean, the ballistics expert. Explain his limited vision, let alone his incompetence, and was money the key issue here, Anthony? Being able to hire a competent ballistics expert?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: Yes, money was very important. Not only the expert than I had at the time of my trial – he was blind in one eye. When he went to the forensic science to check the gun, he didn’t even know how to turn on the basic machine. He had to ask for help to turn on the machine. That should have been a red flag for those men sitting there watching this man ask for help. And not only that, he said that once he got up under the microscope, all he could see was his finger. So, he testified in court that he had very limited eyesight, he had very limited in the telescope he was using. I just don’t understand how a judge or anyone could qualify him as being an expert. They kept using the term, well, he knows more than the average person.

I think there’s some laws need to be changed around here. Just because you read a magazine about surgery, don’t mean I can come up to New York and give you open heart surgery. And so, this is what we need to try to change in Alabama. People just getting up on the stand and testifying, considering theyselves an expert.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you maintain the sense of humor you have, Anthony? I mean, you were well respected by both the guards on death row and also other prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, yes. I think I was born with this sense of humor. And that’s something that 20, 30 years that they took from it, they couldn’t take my soul. They couldn’t take the fact that I love to make people laugh. I think that you can find humor in anything. And I used that as a tool to make other people forget their problems. I think it was my biggest asset that I had, that I – having a sense of humor. I recall some time, just sitting up there and a correction officer would come by and I’d say, hey, I need to go home for an hour and I promise you I’ll come right back. Or just different little stuff that I would say every day to try to get myself through it and as well as my other inmates that were surrounding me – with me.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan Stevenson, the state’s evidence of a match discredited by three highly qualified firearms examiners, including the former chief of the FBI’s Firearm and Tool Marks Unit who testified in 2002 that the bullets from all three crimes could not be matched to a single gun at all, much less to Anthony’s mother’s gun. 2002. When you talk about they just wouldn’t review it, aren’t there laws that say you have to review exonerating evidence? I mean, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the verdict.

BRYAN STEVENSON: No, you’re absolutely right, Amy. But, no, there aren’t those kinds of laws. We rely on the integrity of prosecutors and the integrity of law enforcement officials to do what is required. And in this case, there was an absence of integrity. There was an absence of leadership, there was an absence of goodwill. That’s the challenge that we face right now. Mr. Hinton is the 152nd person to be exonerated after being sentenced to death. That means for every 9 people that have been executed in this country, we have now identified one innocent person. And if we had integrity, we would stop executing people until we dealt with these problems of unreliability. But, that’s what was missing in this case.

We went to every attorney general and the state of Alabama during four administrations. We repeatedly asked the prosecutor. And they just decided to see if they could get away with holding onto this conviction. And it really is shameful, because, while Mr. Hinton’s remarkable human being who had just incredible resolve, he was on death row when 53 other people were executed. They took them just a few feet from where he was housed and put them in the electric chair and strapped them on gurneys. And they tried to kill them every day of his time on death row. I still think we have got great challenges. There are some parts of the country that have created conviction integrity units; we don’t have them in Alabama. I’d love to see the Supreme Court actually create some requirements that would make it easier for us to insist on the kind of testing we were denied for 16 years.

AMY GOODMAN: You were the 152nd person to be exonerated from death row, Anthony Ray Hinton. When you came outside, your first reaction to standing outside, on the other side of the bars?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: Ooh! Thanking God all along, seeing so many cameras and families and friends. It was a long time, but I just felt so relieved at knowing that I was finally being free for something I had been telling people, extremely people, that I didn’t do. And I, I just, it was a feeling like I never felt before. And I can’t really explain it to you, but, hopefully you can understand it, but, from where I’ve been for 30 years, just to be able to come out and knowing that I wasn’t going to have to be locked back up, it’s just an amazing feeling.

AMY GOODMAN: Your mother died in 2002 when you were in prison?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: Yes. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to visit her grave when you left?

ANTHONY RAY HINTON: Yes, I went to her grave. That was, that was my rock. That was everything I had. And I would have loved to been able to say, they finally got it right, mama, and I’m home. And I know she would’ve been the happiest person. She probably would have cooked me all my favorites. And we would just sit down and hugged. I wouldn’t have probably, I know she wouldn’t have let me left. And I definitely wouldn’t have left her arms. When you come up, my mother had to be my father. My father lost his mind when I was very young. My mother instilled in us to do the right thing to do at all times. She was just an extremely ordinary woman. And I loved her more than life itself. I just felt that I owed it to her to fight as hard as I could because she didn’t raise no killer. I think God that he brought me through, and I’m pretty sure that she is jumping around in heaven saying, thank you, Jesus.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan Stevenson, what about compensation? Anthony Ray Hinton was on death Row for 30 years before he was freed, an innocent man.