Free at Last

Anthony Hinton (right), next to Bryan Stevenson, writes of his criminal conviction: “The good old boys had traded in their white robes for black robes, but it was still a lynching.”

On a July day in 1985, Anthony Hinton, a 29-year-old African-American man, was mowing the lawn in his mother’s backyard in Birmingham, Alabama, when two police officers showed up.

A restaurant had been robbed at gunpoint, and the manager had ID’ed Hinton from police photos. Hinton told them that he had been at work 15 miles away when the robbery happened, which was later verified by his supervisor. But the police searched his mother’s house and found her handgun, which they said matched that of the robbery, and also that of two unsolved robbery-murders.

Hinton was charged. There were no eyewitnesses or fingerprint evidence. He passed a polygraph test, but the judge ruled it inadmissible. Hinton’s court-appointed lawyer devoted little time, energy or resources to his case. A bailiff lied on the stand. Thus, Hinton was found guilty and sentenced to death.

His cell was 5 feet by 7 feet, and so close to the electric chair he could smell the burning flesh. He lived in that cell long enough to see 54 other men walk past to be executed: 28 years.

That’s how long it took for the truth – delivered by Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson – to free him from Alabama’s corrupted justice system.

He was exonerated in April 2015. He wrote a book about his ordeal called The Sun Does Shine. It’s a memoir, but with passages that describe Kafka-like horrors.

“In Alabama, justice isn’t blind,” he writes. “She knows the color of your skin, your education level, and how much money you have in the bank.”

And later: “It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense.”

Kelley McClary, an English instructor at Hartnell College, decided to teach the book in her class. Her 90 students read it, talked about it, did writing assignments on it. One student, whose father was in prison, wrote “My belief in the justice system, prison system and capital punishment has been turned upside down.”

“My belief in the justice system, prison system and capital punishment has been turned upside down.”

McClary wrote to the book’s co-author, Lara Love Hardin, who reached out to Hinton. A year later, Hinton is coming to speak at Hartnell College.

He has heartbreaking stories. While in jail and awaiting sentencing, his mother keeps asking during visitation, “When are you coming home, baby?”

The injustice is pervasive.

“The obvious racism,” McClary says. “All of that is maddening.”

The ending is bittersweet. And still unfolding. Hinton is speaking out. He’s done interviews with Oprah Winfrey (who bestowed a 2018 Oprah Book Club selection), spoken at Google and written for The Guardian. His story has also been chronicled in Bryan Stevenson’s own book, Just Mercy, which has been adapted into a film starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson (Hinton is played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.) that’s due for theatrical release this December.

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