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Best-selling author Anthony Ray Hinton speaks to students ahead of MLK Day

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Best-selling author Anthony Ray Hinton speaks to students ahead of MLK Day
Anthony Ray Hinton at the podium

 

On those occasions he finds himself at dinners where dessert is placed on the table before the entree is served, Anthony Ray Hinton always eats the dessert first.

“Since I got out of prison I’ve noticed that people eat their meal, then they often don’t have room left for dessert. I don’t want to miss dessert so I eat it first.”

When you’ve wrongly spent, in Hinton’s words, “Thirty years in a cage on Death Row for a crime you didn’t commit,” you take the sweet moments where you can find them, because 38 years ago your life turned about as sour as possible.

The nightmare started one hot summer day in 1985 on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., as a 29-year-old Hinton was mowing his mother’s yard when two detectives from the Birmingham Police Department pulled up to the residence. They had come to arrest him for two capital murders of a couple of restaurant managers, who’d been killed several months apart.

Never mind that Hinton was working inside a locked warehouse 15 miles from the site of the murders when each one occurred. Or that his boss vouched for him. Or that ballistics run on the bullets fired from the gun the police took from his mother’s home – the gun the police claimed was used in the murders – didn’t match the bullets taken from the victims.

Students listen intently

As Hinton, a 64-year-old Black man told members of the McCallie and GPS student bodies Friday morning in a joint assembly inside the Student Activities Center, “Because I was born poor and black, the truth did not matter.”

So he went to prison for 30 years, forever claiming his innocence, even going so far as to turn down a chance to have his sentence reduced to life without parole because, “I was never going to plead guilty to a crime I didn’t commit. I’d rather die (in the electric chair) than  admit to a crime I didn’t do.”

He is a large man, with salt-and-pepper hair,  a similarly salty beard and a strong yet measured Southern voice. When wearing a suit and tie he could easily pass for an attorney, a college professor or even a judge. 

And while he admirably preaches forgiveness and compassion – “When you don’t forgive, you’re not living your life to the fullest; when you’ve got anger and hate inside you there’s no way you can live a good life” – he also admits he still experiences some tough times emotionally.

“There are wounds inside me I don’t believe will ever heal,” he said. “My cell was 30 feet from the death chair. That smell will never get out of my nostrils.”

Yet there were also humorous moments, even if many were more imagined than real.

“I once convinced myself I was having tea with Queen Elizabeth,” he said. “Then I married a movie star, Halle Berry. We were married for 15 years, then one day I saw the movie “Speed.” I told Halle I was divorcing her to marry Sandra Bullock.”

He even found a sliver of humor in the awful food.

“My typical meal was a bag of potato chips and soup,” Hinton recalled. “The warden had said he could feed the Death Row inmates for 30 cents a day. He wasn’t lying.”

But finally, thanks to the good work done by Equal Justice Initiative and crack defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, Hinton became the 152nd prisoner exonerated from death row in this country since 1983, becoming a free man in the spring of 2015.

Like any wise man who’d once started a book club for Death Row inmates, Hinton released a book about his ordeal, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, that wound up on the New York Times Best Seller List.

Mr. Hinton shows students a picture on his phone

Mr. Hinton shows students a photo of himself with Queen Elizabeth. 

He’s appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, played basketball with actor George Clooney and while he hasn’t yet wooed Berry or Bullock, he not only wound up having tea with the Queen, he was invited to her funeral when she died.

He’s also had a chance to watch his “beloved New York Yankees” play a few games as well as buying season tickets for Auburn football.

“Bo Jackson, Cadillac Williams, Cam Newton, I love ‘em all,” said Hinton. “War Eagle.”

He still laughs about his first trip to Yankee Stadium. “I wanted to see my Yankees, but I also wanted to see what a $15 hot dog tastes like,” he recalled. “Afterward, someone asked me how the hot dog tasted. I said, ‘Pretty much like a $2 hot dog.’”

There are certainly things we take for granted that Hinton never will again.

“My neighbors are deer and foxes,” he said of his home in Walker County, Ala., a few miles west of Birmingham. “I go out every night and look up at the moon and stars because for so long I couldn’t look up.”

And though he proudly pulls out his cell phone to show pictures of himself with the Queen and Oprah, he remains wary of much of technology.

“I have a rule that there are no cell phones when I’m eating with you,” Hinton said. “I want to listen to you and I want you to listen to me. I really believe technology is going to destroy the world because we don’t know when to quit.”

But before that, he believes something far more human may destroy us.

“If we don’t find a way to love another, we’ll find a way to destroy one another.”

One wrongly accused person at a time.

Students with Anthony Ray Hinton