“Do you think you were chosen to do what you do?”
The way former Alabama death-row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton asked me that question as we waited for the start of his sold-out lecture at Seattle’s First Baptist Church last week made it clear he wanted to know whether I believed that God, more than anyone earthbound, had tapped me to write about justice.
My response was to laugh.
The post-lecture Q&A would be moderated by me, so I’d jotted down a few thoughts and questions in a little notebook the night before. That’s exactly one of the questions I’d written for him. He must have been reading my mind.
You see, Hinton, who’s 62, once had every reason to curse God, and not many reasons to embrace the idea of divine guidance.
Hinton spent 28 years on death row for two robbery-murders in the Birmingham, Ala., area in the mid-1980s.
The police turned up one day while Hinton, then 29, was mowing his mother’s lawn; they arrested him.
Hinton did not commit the murders. There was no witness or fingerprint evidence indicating that he had.
A victim in a third attempted attack survived and picked Hinton out of a photo lineup as his assailant. In fact, Hinton was at work 15 miles away when it happened.
The gun that state firearms examiners said was used in the killings belonged to Hinton’s mother, and it hadn’t been fired in 25 years.
On his way to the police station that day, Hinton was told by an officer about the law that actually mattered in Alabama: the code of Southern racism.
It didn’t matter if he killed those people or not. He was poor and black. Black people were always trouble. What’s more, he’d be prosecuted, tried and judged by white people. That’s just how it was in Alabama. White people didn’t need evidence of evil to see it in black men’s faces. They were guilty until proven innocent.
The prosecutor who brought the charges had a history of keeping African Americans off of juries. One of the detectives in the case was accused by federal prosecutors of shocking black prisoners with electric cattle prods and injecting them with hypodermic needles to get confessions. Hinton’s public defender was so incompetent that he hired an unqualified civil engineer with bad vision to run ballistics tests on the bullets.
Hinton was simply going to have to take one for team.
The travesty of Hinton’s prosecution, conviction and death sentence, to say nothing of the time he spent living with an expiration date looming over him, would break an ordinary human.
Hinton is extraordinary.
The prison gave him a copy of the Bible when he was locked up on death row. He threw it under the bed in his five-by-seven cell. For a time, the man who was taught to always tell the truth and who used Biblical teachings to process the events around him, shunned God.
Eventually he would become a kind of spiritual leader among the inmates of death row, comforting those who had afflicted others and honoring their humanity, even though they had stolen just that from their victims.
But here’s the thing. Hinton didn’t do it.
Every 10th inmate currently on death row today may be innocent, too.
The death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Since then, 1,465 men, women and children have been put to death by the federal government and individual states, says a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who worked for more than a decade to prove Hinton’s innocence.
But since 1973, 165 death-row inmates have been exonerated, according to data collected by the Death Penalty Information Center.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously voted to overturn Hinton’s conviction based on the poor performance of his attorney, and they ordered a new trial. Before that could happen, a lower-court judge dismissed the flimsy case outright.
Hinton walked out of prison on April 3, 2015.
“The sun does shine,” he said as he stepped outside as a free man for the first time in the three decades that had been taken from him. That line serves as the title of his equal-parts disturbing and inspiring memoir.
With freedom comes responsibility.
There are still over 2,700 prisoners on death row nationwide. Forty-one percent of them are African Americans, even though only 13 percent of the country is black. Hinton, whose story has drawn international attention, has work to do.
How appropriate that the lecture and discussion played out in a packed sanctuary, because he took us to church.
Not with dogma, but with questions.
“Where is my justice?” Hinton asked the audience.
And how can state-sponsored murder be just in a system so flawed that it can put innocent people to death, while condemning whole demographic groups to inequality before the law?
There we were at a church on Capitol Hill, with the spring sun shining through the stained glass, talking about whether we felt a higher calling. Two black men from the South who were raised to put our lives in God’s hands but who’ve learned along the way that redemption is in ours and yours.
I don’t know if either of us was chosen by a divine force to do what we do. But we have a choice in how we use what we’ve been given.