Death row exoneree: “True forgiveness is the only way to be free, and I want to be free!”

I come here tonight to ask you to help me lead the charge and bring an end to the death penalty. We don’t need the death penalty in this country.”  These were the opening words of 68-year-old Anthony Ray Hinton, as he addressed a packed auditorium at Mt. St. Mary’s University during a Black History Month event co-sponsored by the Catholic Mobilizing Network, sharing his harrowing decades-long journey from wrongful conviction to exoneration, and emphasizing the need for reform of a flawed justice system.  

In 1985, Mr. Hinton was convicted in Alabama for the unsolved murders of two white fast-food restaurant managers, based solely on the testimony of a ballistics expert for the state who initially claimed there was no connection between the crime bullets and the dusty, unused revolver found in the closet of Mr. Hinton’s elderly mother, but whose testimony was disregarded by both prosecution and the jury due to the expert’s limitations (he was blind in one eye and unfamiliar with the technology used for ballistics examination). The jury further disregarded the testimony of Hinton’s boss who provided an alibi. Without the benefit of a competent expert to challenge the State’s theory, Mr. Hinton was prosecuted by a white prosecutor, in front of a white judge, convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death.

I woke up without a care in the world, working, living at home with my mother who had spoiled me all my life.” As he was mowing his mother’s lawn that day, two detectives approached him and arrested him on charges of robbery, kidnapping and first-degree murder. One of the arresting detectives, Detective Doug Aucker, told him, “Whether you committed these crimes or not, I want you to look in my face and remember that I am the one who is going to make sure you will be convicted.”

Aucker further assured Hinton that he had five things against him: “1) you’re Black; 2) a white man will say you shot him – whether you shot him or not, believe me, I don’t care; 3) there will be a white prosecutor; 4) there will be a white judge and 5) there will be an all-white jury. Can you hear the words: ‘conviction, conviction, conviction?’ ” 

After Hinton was able to provide the detectives with a confirmed alibi for the times when the crimes were committed, that same detective told him that he didn’t really believe Hinton had committed those crimes. “But since y’all always cover up for another, why don’t you take this rap for one of your homeboys who did actually commit the crime?” 

It was not until one and a half years of waiting in jail before Hinton finally appeared before a judge who picked an attorney present in the court room to represent Hinton. That lawyer, Sheldon C. Perhacs, complained to Hinton that he did not go to law school to do pro bono work. Hinton asked him if it would make a difference if he told him that he was innocent. The lawyer responded by saying, “The problem with that statement is that ‘you all’ are always committing crimes and the moment you get caught, you say you didn’t do it.” Despite having a credible alibi and no proof connecting Hinton to the crimes, the lawyer’s sub-standard efforts resulted in Hinton being found guilty by the jury. When the judge pronounced the death sentence, he concluded by saying, “May God have mercy on your soul.” To which the prosecutor was heard responding: “Well, we didn’t get the right n*** today, but at least we got another n*** off the street.”

For 17 years, I tried to get those words out of my mind,” says Hinton. After being placed in solitary confinement on death row, Hinton made up his mind that he would never speak to anyone again. “They put me in that 5×7 cell and for the next three years, I did not say another word to another human being, even when my mother or my best friend came to visit me. I only thought about killing those who had wronged me. I had no words. I was angry. Angry at God.” But, he says, during those three years, he came to realize that God did not need him. He needed God. He began to minister to a fellow prisoner in the cell across from him, realizing that his fellow human beings still deserved compassion.

Finally, Hinton decided he needed to find a way to survive his time on death row. “Alabama couldn’t take my soul, my sense of humor, my humanity,” he said. “So, I began to travel to different places in my mind. I closed my eyes and imagined visiting the Queen of England at her palace. I had always believed this lady was born for a life without parole.” In his imagination, Hinton and the Queen had a lovely conversation over tea at Buckingham Palace, and she invited him to visit again in the future. It was a pleasant scenario and Hinton realized he could leave death row any time he wanted to in his mind, including being married to the actress Halle Berry who, in his words, was the perfect wife, because all she would say was, “Yes, dear!” (Berry was later replaced by Sandra Bullock, after the warden let the inmates watch the movie “Speed”).  

During his years on death row, Hinton’s exemplary conduct and unwavering exhibit of compassion and kindness, had earned him the respect of the prison guards and the warden. Hinton was permitted to organize a book club for fellow death row inmates, which became popular among the prisoners. “But my club became smaller over the years, as one after another man on my row walked past my cell on their way to execution.

Going into his 14th year in prison, a Boston lawyer delegated by defense attorney and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, the founder and CEO of the Equal Justice Initiative ( took on Hinton’s case. After working with Hinton for some time, that lawyer finally concluded that he could get Hinton’s death sentence converted to life without parole. Hinton fired the attorney on the spot since “only a guilty man would accept a life without parole.”

On his way back from escorting the attorney out, Hinton passed by a guard who was watching a documentary about the death penalty, featuring Bryan Stevenson. The guard allowed him to stay and watch the episode. Hinton saw this as another sign from God and wrote to Stevenson, asking him to consider his case. He implored Stevenson to read the full transcript, saying, “If you find anything in that transcript that points to my guilt, you do not need to represent me.” Stevenson agreed to take on Hinton’s case. When discussing the hiring of a new expert to revisit the ballistics examination, Hinton insisted that this expert be 1) a white male and 2) a Southerner.  Hinton explained that even the best white female in the country would not be taken seriously on the stand in Alabama. Neither would an expert who was a person of color. Hinton further stipulated that the expert to look for needed to believe in the death penalty.  Stevenson was able to find three renowned experts fitting Hinton’s specifications, two from Texas, one from Virginia. Neither of them had ever testified for the defense and they all were known for their reputation as experts for the prosecution, having put other men on death row before.  

These experts, individually and jointly, concluded that the bullets used in the murders did not match the gun of Hinton’s mother. Stevenson took the findings with a request to re-examine the bullets to the Alabama Attorney General who responded by saying that, as far as he was concerned, “The right man is on death row. The only problem is that we haven’t executed him yet.” (Hinton remarked that this AG was later appointed by George W. Bush to a federal life-time appointment.)  Stevenson filed the case going through several venues, all of whom refused to grant release until the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Hinton was entitled to a new trial.

During the re-trial, the prosecution claimed that they had lost the gun in question. Laura Petro, the presiding judge, gave the prosecution 60 days to find the gun. Upon reconvening, the prosecution reported that they had found the gun but lost the bullets. Judge Petro was undeterred by the prosecution’s maneuvers and gave them an additional 60 days to find the bullets. It was later discovered that the prosecutor had not lost the bullets but had actually called one of his own experts during that time to re-examine the ammunition again. Upon his examination, that expert was quoted in a local newspaper, saying the bullets did “not match the same way they did 30 years ago”. However, “I am here to tell you that they never DID match,” Hinton told the audience.

Upon testimony from the three experts presented by Stevenson, the State of Alabama eventually dropped the case. Hinton was released on April 3, 2015, after spending thirty years in solitary confinement. To this date, the State of Alabama has not apologized, nor offered compensation for Hinton’s wrongful conviction and incarceration.

The State of Alabama did not ask me for forgiveness, but I want you to know the moment I decided to forgive these Southern white men who did this to me, I didn’t forgive them so they can sleep good at night. I forgave them so I can sleep at night.”

Hinton further explained:  “We live in a country that believes in justice. We live in a country that will go to other countries to seek justice. But where is MY justice? No matter what state you live in, you live in the UNITED STATES. And when the State of Alabama executes a man, they execute them in YOUR NAME, in the name of justice. I have been traveling around this country for years trying to find where I should get this justice. Nobody has an answer.”

Hinton also said that anyone believing in the death penalty had the right to this opinion, but, at the same time, needed to have an answer for those times when a mistake is made. “You see, I know for a fact that we have already executed innocent men and women. While I was on Alabama death row, 54 men walked right past my cell on their way to be executed. My cell was 30 feet away from the death chamber. I had to endure the smell of human flesh burning. I would not wish that on anybody. Since we have the death penalty in this country, we all need to get together and fight for justice for those who were robbed of their freedom but didn’t commit the crime.” Hinton further referred to the recent case of a man being executed with a new method (see Kenneth Eugene Smith execution with nitrogen gas). “Some politicians have you believe that the death penalty is a deterrent. But Alabama is no safer with that man being executed as they were when he was in prison for 25 years.”

Finally, Hinton told the story of befriending a fellow death row inmate, 19-year-old KKK member Henry, whose father, a Grand Wizard, had ordered his son and two other Klan members to go out and lynch the first Black person they would come across. The three men found a 19-year-old intellectually disabled Black man whom they brutally murdered and mutilated.

We love to say in this country that it takes a village to raise a child. I want to know where was this village when this young boy was being taught to hate? Henry did everything his father and community taught him. And when they tried and convicted young Henry, that same village said it would be a better world if he wasn’t in it. So that village sentenced him to death.”

Over the course of 15 years, Hinton spent much of his time trying to convince Henry that there was no reason he should hate a person based on the color of their skin. He invited Henry to the book club and had him read James Baldwin’s “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Henry read the book, mentioning that he didn’t even know that Black people wrote books. Slowly, Hinton was able to open Henry’s mind.

When the time came for Henry’s execution, he requested that Hinton be by his side. On the day of his execution, Hinton did his best to make Henry laugh all day long, “so he would forget that this was his last day on this earth.” That night, the wardens permitted Hinton and Henry to embrace and say their goodbyes. As the guards asked him for his final words, Henry said, “All my life I was taught to hate; but for the last 15 years of my life, the very people that they told me to hate, have shown me nothing but love. And as I leave this world tonight, I leave this world knowing what love feels like.”

Hinton asked the audience, most of whom students:  “I leave you with this question:  What would you do if they came to you? What would you do if you were charged with a crime you didn’t commit? What would you do if you didn’t have the money to get a decent defense? What would you do if you passed a polygraph test but they cared more about the color of your skin than the results of the test? What would you do if you had to live in a cell smaller than your bathroom?”   

I wish I could tell you tonight that the State of Alabama made an honest mistake. But the State of Alabama did not make an honest mistake. I wish I could tell you that being born Black and poor had nothing to do with me spending 30 years in a 5×7 cell.  We have a system that I need your help in changing.”

Hinton reminded the audience that they wake up every morning with a choice to be the best human beings they can be. “Despair is a choice. Hatred is a choice. Anger is a choice. But so are hope, faith, love, and compassion.”  

After his release, Hinton eventually met Queen Elizabeth II in real life (he showed the audience a picture of their meeting). He no longer blames politicians for the corrupt system, he says, but blames those who don’t exercise their right to vote. Since his release, Mr. Hinton has traveled the world sharing his story and pleading for the changes that need to be made to prevent similar injustices from happening to other people. In 2018, Mr. Hinton published The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and is a New York Times bestseller. In 2019, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Bonaventure University.

Dr. Rosie Bolen, a board member of Interfaith Center for Peace and Justice (ICPJ) in Gettysburg and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training and Development at Mount St. Mary’s University, explains that many faith traditions oppose the death penalty. “We are called to live with justice and mercy and uphold the value of all life. The death penalty violates our belief in the inherent dignity of every human being.” In addition, Bolen says, the death penalty disproportionately affects people in poverty, people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities, and people of color.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, people of color constitute over half of the inmates on death row in the U.S.  Compared to their white counterparts, people of color are more likely to be prosecuted for a capital crime, sentenced to death, and executed. Since 1973, over half of the currently 197 death row exonerees were Black.  Hinton was the sixth person in the state of Alabama and the 152nd person since 1973 to be exonerated from death row in the United States. Hinton’s claim for nearly $1.5 million in compensation for his time in jail due to the wrongful conviction has been rejected by the Alabama legislature as state authorities say that he did not prove his innocence.

27 US states (including the military) are death penalty states, including our own State of Pennsylvania, which is the only Northeastern US state that still retains death penalty laws. Earlier this week, on February 27, 2024, Pennsylvania death row inmate Daniel Gwynn became the 197th per­son in the US to be exon­er­at­ed after being sen­tenced to death since 1973, accord­ing to DPIC’s Innocence Database. ​

Pennsylvania is now tied with North Carolina and Louisiana for fourth-most exonerations from death row. A bill to repeal the death penalty in Pennsylvania has passed a committee in the Commonwealth’s House of Representatives. On October 31, 2023, the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee voted 15-10 in favor of HB 999. That vote is the first step toward abolishing the death penalty in Pennsylvania, which has had a formal moratorium on executions since 2015 and has not executed anyone since 1999.

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Photos courtesy of Mike Miller Photography

Donate Gardner is a freelance journalist who came to Gettysburg in 2021 from Montgomery County, Maryland.
A former linguist-turned-legal professional, Donate recently retired from the corporate world and is eager to support her new community in a variety of ways. As an immigrant born, raised, and educated in Germany, Donate still maintains a strong connection to the German language as a freelance writer and translator. Donate is an active musician and has made her new home in Gettysburg available to host house concerts for traveling musicians and local artists in need of support. Donate and her husband have two daughters and three grandchildren.

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