“Somebody helped me. I believe that someone helped you, and you should be willing to help someone else,” Anthony Ray Hinton of the Equal Justice Initiative Addresses Robertson Scholars & Alumni

Photo of Anthony Ray Hinton

“For 27 years I lived a life you could only imagine…I played baseball with the New York Yankees… we won five great world series, I hit the winning home run every year for us to win the championship. I played basketball for those pathetic, my beloved Knicks, and I tell people to this day I’m just upset that Wimbledon has not yet sent me my Rolex watch for winning five straight years,” It may not be the life you would envision for a death row inmate, but for Anthony Ray Hinton his imagination was his salvation.

“The mind is something beautiful and when you find yourself in hell, just think of heaven and… you begin to develop another life. And I just imagined being free, so let me say this: my body went to prison for 30 years, but my mind never did go.”

In 1985 in Alabama, Mr. Hinton was wrongfully convicted of murder. At the time of his arrest, when he asked what he was being charged with a police officer responded, “There’s five things that are going to convict you…Number one, you’re black. Number two, you’re going to have a white man who says you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, I don’t care. Number three, you’re going to have a white prosecutor. Number four, you’re going to have a white judge. Number five, you’re going to have an all-white jury. Do you know what that spells? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.”

Despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, including bullets at the crime scene that did not match a gun tied to Mr. Hinton, he was sentenced to death and the officer’s statements rang true. “I realized that I was angry with the men that had gotten together and just did this because they had the power and the means to do it. I made up my mind that I had to forgive them in order for me to live. I thought the hatred I was carrying for those men was what was keeping me alive, but I realized it was that very hatred that was killing me…forgiveness is not a sign of weakness but it’s a sign of strength.”

Mr. Hinton shared his story of perseverance and hope with Robertson Scholars and alumni as part of the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program’s celebration of Black History Month. The frank re-telling of his story also shed light on the continued disparities plaguing the justice system in the United States.

“What kind of system do we have that we can take innocent men and women off the street, not just convict them, but put them on death row for a crime they know that the person hasn’t committed? You see the system, they would have you believe that it’s broken, but the system is not broken. The system will work exactly the way that it’s designed to work. This system has a pipeline that runs from school to prison, this system has a pipeline that runs from certain neighborhoods to prison.” Hinton shared.

For more than fifteen years, attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative worked alongside Mr. Hinton, imploring state officials to reexamine the evidence in the case. “Mr. Stevenson came and he said ‘Ray, they’re not going to do the right thing in Alabama, I need to take your case to the United States Supreme Court. He said ‘but I need to inform you that if the United States Supreme Court rules against you, the state of Alabama will execute you at the end of the year.’’” According to Mr. Hinton, the Supreme Court did something for the first time in its history: all nine Justices ruled in his favor, declaring the State of Alabama should grant him a new trial. The judge dismissed the case after prosecutors conceded that bullets at the crime scene could not be matched to the weapon tied to Mr. Hinton.

Now, Mr. Hinton is a Community Educator for EJI, advocating for the abolition of the death penalty. “I have to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. I have to be a mouthpiece for those who really want to speak out but can’t. I have to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves because I was once confined for 30 years, and I didn’t have a voice and somebody else was my voice…I have to believe that by speaking out, by sharing this story, we can come together and bring change.”

His advice to scholars, “When you make it to the top be willing to reach down and pull someone else up with you. I think until we get the mindset to start thinking of each other, to start caring for one another, loving one another, to start sharing with one another, you don’t have to start off loving one another, but just respect one another, talk to one another.”  Hinton went on to conclude, “I think that’s the way we build this bridge and start helping all of God’s children and that’s what we were put on this earth to do; to look out for one another.”

Mr. Hinton’s sharing of his story was a reminder for Scholars and alumni alike of the power of transformational leadership.