How to Survive Death Row

Anthony Ray Hinton served 30 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit. Somehow, he’s not enraged.

Anthony Ray Hinton
Anthony Ray Hinton Equal Justice Initiative

Anthony Ray Hinton, age 61, now lives as a free man in the state of Alabama, where he was born and raised. When he was 29, Hinton, who is black, was tried in Birmingham for the murders of two fast-food managers and sentenced to death. It didn’t matter that he had a good alibi. It didn’t matter that he passed a polygraph test. A racially biased prosecutor presenting faulty evidence that Hinton’s mother’s gun was used in the crimes, and aided by Hinton’s own contemptuous and incompetent defense counsel, won a conviction anyway.

Due to his own perseverance, and eventually with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative, Hinton was able to show that the gun evidence was flawed. And yet he still had to remain in prison for more than another decade. He was finally freed and exonerated in 2015 after serving 30 years for crimes he didn’t commit.

Hinton spent years watching other men proceed to the death chamber, which was only yards away from his cell. Now, he has written an account of his experiences, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom On Death Row, which describes how his faith and commitment to public service—even when incarcerated—helped him emotionally persevere. Throughout the book, he draws portraits of his fellow prisoners—some racists, some murderers, some men who were also almost surely not guilty, many men who never received the legal or emotional help they deserved—and in doing so, paints a disturbing picture of America’s punitive and racially biased legal system.

I recently spoke by phone with Hinton, who has become a criminal justice activist. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the most difficult aspects of being a free man, why forgiveness is so important to his own happiness, and facing up to the realization that people don’t like you because of the color of your skin.

Isaac Chotiner: There’s a phrase that tends to get repeated when someone gets sick or they go through hard times: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I’m curious what you think of that phrase.

Anthony Ray Hinton: Well, to be honest with you, I think of this phrase as, “Whatever God bring you through, it makes you stronger.” My faith got stronger. There’s no way that I believe that one can go through what I went through without having a strong faith in God.

When every court was saying “no,” I believe God was still saying yes. I had to somehow find that faith and reach deep down in my soul and believe in the teaching that my mother taught me as a young boy, that God can do everything but fail. He sits high, and he looks low. That’s how I really survived that 30 years of pure hell.

If you feel like God helped you survive this, how do you understand God putting you in this situation in the first place? How does your faith reconcile that?

I’m going to be perfectly honest with you: When all this was taking place, I kept wondering, “Why me?” I knew I was innocent, and when I got convicted and once they said, “I sentence you to death,” and I went to death row, I took that same Bible that I believed in and had the faith in. I took that Bible and throwed it up under the bed, not to open for three years. Actually, going into the fourth year.

I believe God at that time had let me down, had disappointed me. I felt that God couldn’t do everything. I wondered, “Why would God allow an innocent man to go to death row? Why would God allow an innocent man to die for something that he knows that I didn’t do?” I was so angry with God, til I didn’t want to hear God’s name. That was the human side of me, that was so angry with God and everyone else because I was innocent.

When I went to prison, for three years I didn’t say a word to another human being, until going into the fourth year, when I realized, you know what, I have to find a way to live. The state of Alabama can take my future. The state of Alabama can take my freedom. But the state of Alabama can’t take my joy. The joy that I had when I went there, if the world didn’t give it to me, the world couldn’t take it away, but I had allowed the world to take it away, and I wanted to pick it back up.

I can say that God might have put me in prison to save my life. He might have put me in prison for me to listen to him, in order to write this book, to help change people’s hearts and souls and to help them understand what true forgiveness is all about, to understand what his true friendship is all about, to make people understand what the legal system is all about. I have to believe that God allowed me to go there in order to show me all of these things.

You had to deal with your own lawyers being disrespectful to you. Judges and law enforcement officers were disrespectful to you. Is there anyone that you found it hard to forgive, that you still struggle with to this day?

I spent the first three years in silence. All I could think about was trying to escape. I wanted to escape not to be on the run, but to choke the life out of the police officer that lied on me. I wanted to choke the prosecutor. I didn’t think these men deserved to live, knowing that they had sent an innocent man to prison.

Those three years was the years that I just couldn’t conceive of forgiving these men for what they had done to me. Do you realize that they didn’t just take me away from my freedom? They took me away from my mother, who I loved more than life itself. They took me away from my friends. They took me away from my community. They took me away from the things that I loved doing. How do you forgive people that honestly take you away from these things, knowing that you’re innocent and telling you, “We know that we didn’t get the right person, but you will do”?

After a period of three years, I began to look at myself, and I didn’t like what I was seeing in the mirror. I didn’t like the person that didn’t smile and didn’t laugh anymore. That’s the type of person I am. I believe in laughter. I believe laughter is good for the soul. I believe in making other people laugh to make them feel good. And so once I looked in the mirror, going into the fourth year, I decided that I would take my life back. The only way that I could take my life back was that I knew I had to forgive. I knew this. There was no doubt about it, but I knew I needed help in forgiving these racist white men that had did this to me.

How do you forgive somebody that don’t like you just because of the color of your skin? I prayed that God would remove the hatred that I had in my heart for these racist white men. I prayed daily that he would remove this hatred from me. I will not sit here and tell you that he did it overnight. All I can tell you, eventually, at some point, in some time, I began to smile again, and I forgave those racist white men that did this to me.

Once I could feel that forgiveness, I realized one thing: They had to give an account for what they did to me to their creator. I knew that I wanted to live and I wanted to be the person that my mom brought me up to be, and that is a loving, kind, generous person. I just couldn’t live with that anger anymore.

Do you ever still feel angry today, even if you know that forgiveness was the best thing for you as a human being?

There’s not a day that go by that I even think about these men, unless I’m asked about them. One of them is, two of them is already dead, and I want to tell you, I truly believe that they are in hell for what they did. But I’m telling you, I forgave them, and once God removed that hatred from me, I haven’t thought about those men at all.

If they had reached out to you, would you have spoken to them, before they passed?

Oh absolutely. Absolutely. If I could meet any one of them today, the first thing I would say, “I want you to know that I forgive you again for what you did to me. Now, you have to find a way to forgive yourself.” Then if I had the money, I would say, I would love to treat you to a cup of coffee and maybe we could talk. And I would just like to know what was it that I did, as a black man that didn’t know, never gave them one ounce of trouble, what was it that you hated me so much for that you was willing to take my life for something you knew that I didn’t do? I would love to sit down and ask them the question. If they could answer it, I would appreciate it. If they say they can’t answer it, I can live with that as well.

What besides the Bible helped you get through death row?

The fact that I was there with 200 more men who shared their stories, shared their belief, shared their nonbelief. There was the guards there, that eventually learned to talk to you about their personal life. They’d tell you about how easy they could have been on death row. There was time when you would just get true pleasure out of going outside for 15 minutes, to smell the fresh air, to see the sunshine. I wish I could tell you that I enjoyed the rain, but they didn’t allow us to be outside on rain, but reading a good book brought me joy. Indulging in a conversation about the Lord brought me joy. Indulging in the way that I was brought up as a boy brought me joy. But the most thing that brought me joy, more than anything, was trying to mentor and be a mentor for those men who had lost their hope. Once I regained my hope, was trying to give them hope. That brought me, absolutely, joy.

Once you got a better legal team—people I know you’re still close to now—I’m sure that you started imagining what it would be like the day you were freed. I’m wondering what you imagined the first day of freedom would look like.

Once I got Bryan Stevenson and EJI, I knew I finally had a lawyer and a team that was going to fight for me day and night, and fight for the truth to come out. I imagine the day that I walked out of prison, I could see it just as plain as day. I was going to be able to just stay outside, all day and all night if I wanted to. I imagined being able to go anywhere that I wanted to go. I imagined eating whatever I wanted to eat. I imagined seeing whoever I wanted to see.

But more than anything, I imagined that I didn’t have to live behind wire mesh that I had seen every day. I didn’t have to wake up to all the noise, and I didn’t have to wake up and be told what to do and what to eat and when to eat it and how fast to eat and what to wear and not to wear. I just imagined being free. Freedom sends you wherever you want to go. I imagined going places. I imagined going to England and meeting the queen. I imagined going to New York to see my beloved Knicks play. I imagined going to New York and seeing my beloved Yankees play. In my mind, I imagined all of these beautiful things that I had missed all of these years, and I kept saying, “I can’t wait to go and see what a $15 hot dog tastes like at Yankee Stadium.” Just to bite down on this hot dog, to see how it tasted, the onions and stuff. I mean, I even imagined throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium.

They should let you do that. But I’m sorry that the Knicks aren’t better. I wish I could help you out there.

Well I need to be the coach of the Knicks, and I guarantee you, I’d bring a championship to the Knicks in two years’ time.

I don’t know, I think you need a whole new management, team, owner, everything.

Let me tell you, since we’re talking about my beloved Knicks. The Knicks pay more money out than anybody. They just don’t get the benefit from them. As a coach, I won’t be afraid to get in their face and tell them, “You either produce, or you’re gone.” I would make the Knicks a winner. [Laughs.]

What’s been the biggest challenge since you got out, and what has been the nicest surprise?

The biggest challenge for me, and still is today, is modern technology. These cellphones, these computers, internet, everything about the way modern technology have just took over since I was locked up. We didn’t have the phone that we have. Didn’t have computers. Everything seems simple, but for me, it’s complicated. I’m trying my best to get on board and learn as much as I can. Every time you learn something, there’s more to learn about it. That is the thing that’s giving me fits.

The thing that I find fascinating and more pleasing is that people genuinely are sorry. They hear what I went through. I thought people wouldn’t care, but people generally do care. I get letters all the time from people that tell me that they care, and that they wish that there’s something they could do. They’re sorry that I went through this. I find that striking because I believe that we live in a world where people only care about themselves, but I have been proven wrong.

You mentioned your mom. What was your mom’s name?

Beulah Hinton. Beulah.

Was she able to forgive people the way you did?

Well you know that’s where I learned forgiveness—from my mother. My mother used to sit me down for whatever reason, and she used to always tell me, always remember, you are not responsible for how people treat you. But you are responsible for how you treat others. My mom would tell me, there are going to be some people. She didn’t say white. She didn’t say black. She didn’t Mexican or whatever. She said, “There will be people that dislike you simply because of the color of your skin. You haven’t done anything to them. They just don’t like you because of the color of your skin. These are the people that you are still to pray for. These are the people that you are still to love, regardless of how they treat you.”

And I couldn’t understand that as a young boy, but as I got older and older and as I sat on death row, I finally understood what my mother was saying. I have learned in the years that I’ve been on this earth, you don’t have to do anything to people. You just have to be of a different race, of a different gender, and people will dislike you. But you have to go on, and you have to live your life. You can’t worry about why this person don’t like you. You just have to continue to believe in the words that my mother gave me. Pray for them.

When was the last time you saw her?

The last time I saw my mom was in 1997. My mom started getting sick, and my mom finally passed away in 2002.

My mom was my world. My mom was everything to me. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have a whole lot of materialistic things, but one thing I can truly say, that my mother loved me and all of her children unconditionally. There was nothing that I couldn’t talk to my mother about. There was nothing that I couldn’t tell my mother. I just feel that if everybody in this world could have a mother the way my mother was, this would be a better world.

Thank you for taking the time.

Thank you, and let me say that I give all credit for who I am and what I am to my mother. I just want the world to know that my mother didn’t raise and bring up a killer.