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For 30 years, Anthony Ray Hinton lived in solitary confinement, on death row.
Mr Hinton was convicted of double murder. But he was completely innocent.
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Watch Anthony Ray Hinton’s incredible story below
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In July, 1985, police in Alabama investigating two murders and one attempted murder identified – incorrectly – a then 29-year-old Anthony Ray Hinton as the man responsible and went to get him.
“My mother had asked me to go out in the backyard and cut grass”, Ray, as he likes to be known, told 7NEWS.com.au
“I would say 20, 25 minutes into cutting the grass, I just happened to look up and there stood two white gentlemen that I’d never seen before.”
The men identified themselves as detectives with the Birmingham Police Department. Mr Hinton confirmed his identity and was told the police had a warrant for his arrest. But he was not told what the charges were.
“I must have asked these two officers at least 50 times, ‘what am I being charged with?’ They never would tell me.
“And finally I said it perhaps a little louder than I intended to. I said, ‘why am I being arrested?’
“And the detective that wasn’t driving got really angry at me and he turned around and he said, ‘you want to know why we arrested you? We’re going to charge you with first degree robbery, first degree kidnapping, first degree murder.’
“I said, ‘well, I haven’t done any of that’. And he said, ‘well, let me you something right now. I don’t care whether you did it or didn’t do it, I’m gonna make sure you’re found guilty.’
“And finally, he looked at me and he said: ‘By the way, there’s five things that are going to convict you. Would you like to know what they are? Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man is going to say you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, believe me, I do not care.’
“He said, ‘number three, you’re gonna have a white prosecutor. Number four, you’re gonna have a white judge. And number five, you’re gonna have an all-white jury.’
“And he said, ‘do you know what that spells?’ And he repeated the word ‘conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.’
“And that’s where they laid the case out.”
Police seized an old gun from his mother’s house, ignoring Anthony’s pleas that it had not been fired in 25 years.
Despite no eyewitnesses, no direct evidence and a rock solid alibi, Anthony Ray Hinton was charged with double murder – a crime punishable by death.
Doomed from the start
Mr Hinton was a young, poor black man from rural Alabama. He couldn’t afford to get the help he needed to prove his innocence.
“If you don’t have the money to hire decent defence, 99.9 per cent of the time, especially if you’re born black and poor in America, you’re going to prison.”
Those odds were even greater after Mr Hinton met his court-appointed lawyer.
“I looked at that lawyer and I said, ‘sir, would it make a difference to you If I told you I was innocent?’
“That lawyer looked at me and said, ‘the problem with that statement is, all of y’all blacks are always doing something. And the moment you get caught, you say, you didn’t do it.’
“And I had to somehow try to convince this lawyer that I was innocent. But to be honest with you, that lawyer did exactly enough to get me found guilty and sentenced to death. That’s the lawyer that they gave me.”
Ray passed a polygraph lie-detector test, but it was not admissible as evidence. His case came down to bullets, and the gun from his mum’s house.
The state prosecutors had their ballistic experts and Mr Hinton’s lawyer had his, but there was a major problem with the expert in Mr Hinton’s corner.
His lawyer went for the cheapest option: an elderly, visually-impaired civil engineer with no firearms experience, and who couldn’t even use a microscope.
“When he took the stand, instead of me crying for myself, I cried for him. Because he had to admit he was blind in one eye.
“My expert told the jury that when he tried to examine the bullets, ‘all I could see was my finger’.
‘And I knew then that I was going to be found guilty.’
And that’s exactly what happened. – Mr Hinton was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced by a white judge.
“For whatever reason, the judge proudly stood up and said, ‘Anthony Ray Hinton, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers. And it is the order of this court that I sentence you to death.’
“When he said that, I went completely blind for maybe two seconds. I couldn’t see a thing.
“All I can think of is, ‘Guilty. How? How can I be guilty when I haven’t done anything? How can I be guilty?’”
“I was brought up to believe in the justice system, that if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have to lie. You don’t have to do anything, but tell the truth.
“Yet this judge was telling me that he sentenced me to death.
“I didn’t know a thing about the death penalty. I didn’t know whether they was going to execute me the next day, or the same day.”
On the row
Mr Hinton was taken straight from court to death row at Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility.
He was so furious at the injustice, that he did not speak for three years to anyone except to his mother, who visited once a month.
He was surrounded by 200 other prisoners on death row, each in their own tiny cell.
Anthony was in solitary confinement for 30 long years.
“Every day, to be honest with you, was the same. Time was not important.
“They had their own set date and set time that they were going to execute you.
“But you woke up every morning at three o’clock to eat breakfast. Every day at 10 o’clock, you ate lunch. Every day at two o’clock, you ate dinner.”
“And there was so much noise on the row. I was on the row with 200 men, and everybody’s talking at different times of day and different times of night.
“There were days that you can’t even hear yourself think. Beating on the bars and walls all day, screaming and hollering all night.”
‘I thought I was in hell. I really did. That is exactly how I felt.’
“There is never, ever, any good news that comes to you on death row. Everything is bad news. ‘Your sister died, your mother died, your father died.’
“And guys were getting their execution date set. ‘You got 30 days to live, you got 60 days to live.’
“You stopped thinking about what it was like when you were free.”
“I was in solitary confinement. I didn’t know whether the sun was shining, whether it was raining. Solitary confinement, is meant to break you. I can’t even begin to describe it. The way it truly is as a place is unbelievable.”
The death chamber
The conditions were horrendous, but the placement of Anthony’s cell made it worse.
He was just 10m from the execution chamber, which housed Alabama’s infamous electric chair, nicknamed ‘Yellow Mama’.
During his time on death row, Mr Hinton saw 54 men and one woman walk right past his cell to be executed.
It’s at this point in the interview that he breaks down, his trauma all too real.
“To see somebody walk right past your door, and you can’t do anything to help them. And knowing that they are about to be put to death. Regardless of what they may have done, as a human being, I felt so helpless,” Mr Hinton says.
“You get to know these people over the years. It’s like losing a family member. You learn what made them, you learn their upbringing. And it’s just all over.”
When Yellow Mama was turned on to deliver her fatal dose of electricity, the lights in Anthony’s cell would flicker for minutes on end.
But that wasn’t the only sign of death that tortured him.
“The worst part I had to deal with is when they execute, I had to smell the body burning for 24 hours. And I couldn’t get the human smell outta my nose. And I never will forget that.
“I asked one of the guards whether he could give me anything so that I couldn’t smell the flesh burning.
“And that guard looked at me and he said: ‘There’s nothing I can give you. But if there’s a consolation, you will get used to it.’
“And he said: ‘One day somebody will smell your flesh burning this way.’
“I just think that we live in a cruel world. It takes a person with no heart to look a human being in the eye – not caring whether they’re guilty or innocent – and say that.
“He had no compassion. None for the living and none for the dead.
“I kept wondering, how did he get used to that smell? Because it is a smell that is indescribable. And I had to smell that smell 54 times.”
The hunt for justice
Desperate to not make that walk to the death chamber himself, in 1995, Anthony reached out to Bryan Stevenson, a young lawyer and activist from Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
Bryan had a track record of fighting for wrongfully convicted felons and he immediately took on Anthony’s case.
He recruited new ballistic experts who said the evidence in the police’s possession proved that Anthony was innocent.
Yet, it was still a battle to get a retrial. The Alabama Supreme Court refused to grant one.
Mr Stevenson fought for Anthony Ray Hinton for 16 years until, in 2014, the US Supreme court agreed that Anthony deserved a new trial.
Bryan Stevenson brought in three of America’s leading ballistic experts, each of whom concluded that the bullets were not from the same gun, let alone Anthony’s mother’s gun.
All charges against Anthony Ray Hinton were dropped.
“Words cannot begin to express the love that I have for Mr Stevenson, along with my brothers and sisters at EJI for what they did for me,” Anthony says.
“It took them 16 solid years to finally win my freedom and had Mr Stevenson not took up my case, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.”
“Because make no mistake about it – the state of Alabama knew I was innocent, but the state of Alabama had every intention to execute me for a crime they knew I didn’t commit.
“And it was only when Bryan Stevenson came into my life and fought for me, that the state of Alabama finally had no choice but to let me go, after 30 years of captivity.”
On April 3, 2015, Anthony Ray Hinton was released from his 30-year hell.
Flanked by Bryan Stevenson and his loved ones, he saw daylight for the first time.
The first words he said, in front of awaiting cameras were “the sun does shine”.
“It was bittersweet,” Anthony recalls. “It was sweet that I wasn’t in the cage anymore, but it was bitter that my mother was no longer here to see her baby boy walk outta prison for a crime that he didn’t commit.”
Heartbreakingly, Ray’s mother, Buhlar, passed away in 2002.
Anthony Ray Hinton walked back into a world he did not know and was introduced to the internet, mobile phones, and even Oprah.
He has the freedom to do what he wants when he wants. But Anthony says he’s not free … yet.
“I was finally set free from the cage, but I am not – and will never be – free again.
“And I say that because as a black man in America, there’s a risk that I could go back to prison tomorrow.
“Because if they did it to you once, they can do it to you again. So every day I live with the fear of not being free.”
“I walk around and I have the privilege to go and come as I please. But when I go home every night, I have that fear that the police is going to kick my door down and say, I’ve done something again.
“I know that deep down inside, I am free. But I just cannot afford to tell myself that. Because one time I was free, And they locked me up for 30 years.
“So I live in a world that is bittersweet. But the days that I can enjoy, I try my best to enjoy.
“But I don’t think I will be free until I get some help to help me deal with 30 years of being locked up in the cage.
“I’ve been home since 2015 and no one in the state of Alabama has had the decency to say, ‘sorry’.
“No one in the state of Alabama has asked me if I need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist. I’m having to deal with this every day, on my own.
The state of Alabama refuses to pay Mr Hinton a settlement, or offer any help of any kind, because “he didn’t prove his innocence”.
Mr Hinton, along with Bryan Stevenson, continues to fight that baffling claim.
‘The sun does shine’
“I believe that there’s always hope. And I say that because the state that I live in, at one time, I was not allowed to vote. The state that I live in, I was one time not allowed to ride in front of the bus. The state that I live in, I was not allowed to marry outside of my race. The state that I live in, I couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain as a white man.
“But today I can do all of those things. Growing up as a little boy, my mother always told me to believe, to have faith.
“I truly believe that, even though I may not live to see it, I truly believe that one day we will end the death penalty, not just in America, but all over the world. I have to believe that.
“In life, we all will have some rain. And sometimes it seems like all there is, is rain.
“But I want every man, every woman, every child to hold on, because the sun will shine.
“I truly believe that. And that’s why I titled my book The Sun Does Shine.
“It rained on me for 30 long years. And that is far too long. But I kept my belief, that above all of this rain, the sun was going to shine on me one day.
“And it did.”
My Big Story
This video and interview is the latest instalment in a new series called My Big Story.
Fronted by 7NEWS Lead Reporter Angela Cox, the YouTube series shines a spotlight on incredible stories from people’s lives.
Every single day one of us has a ‘big’ story.
Events that make us who we are, shape us, inform what we do with our lives.
Who we become.
These ‘big’ stories are simply extraordinary.
Defining moments that make – or break – people.
From them, we can learn, empathise and connect.
These are the turning points that change people’s lives.
These stories must be told.
This content was originally published here.