Anthony Ray Hinton spent 28 years on death row for murders he did not commit. "I wish I could say the State of Alabama made an honest mistake," he said when he spoke to Greenwich Academy and Brunswick upper school students last week, "But this wasn't an honest mistake. Race and class had everything to do with me going to jail."
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Hinton was working in a warehouse and living with his mother in a small home in rural Alabama. Police officers arrived at his home one summer afternoon to arrest him without offering any explanation for the arrest. Hours later, he was informed that he was being charged with murder.
Despite a rock-solid alibi and an absence of evidence tying him to the crimes, Mr. Hinton didn't stand a chance—he ended up on death row because he was a poor black man without the resources to hire a competent defense attorney or a ballistics expert, up against a white prosecutor, a white judge, and an all-white jury.
Though he appealed his sentence on numerous occasions, without capable legal representation, he continued to languish in prison. More than a decade into his incarceration, he was offered legal representation from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). For 16 years, EJI attorneys worked tirelessly on his behalf. The State of Alabama seemed to put forth their best efforts to keep him incarcerated; they refused him a new trial, claimed to have misplaced key pieces of evidence, and engaged in a host of other maneuvers intended to prevent Mr. Hinton from seeking justice. "My life was not worth the truth," he said.
His case was eventually taken to the United States Supreme Court. With a 9-0 judgement, the court ruled that Mr. Hinton should be given a retrial, at which point the State of Alabama dropped all charges; he was released from prison in April 2015. The state has never issued an apology to Mr. Hinton.
In preparation for this speaker visit, the Greenwich Academy community celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day by examining themes related to equity and justice. In the Upper School, students convened in small groups to learn about the issue of mass incarceration and inequities in the criminal justice system. They discussed scenarios based on real court cases and how factors such a race and income can result in dramatically different outcomes for similar cases. These discussions served as a meaningful way to connect Mr. Hinton's visit with Dr. King's mission of fighting for equal rights for all.
Even more meaningful, however, was for the students to hear Mr. Hinton's first hand account of what it means to be judged only for the color of your skin. "There's no doubt," said Diversity Director Gloria Fernandez-Tearte, "That students and teachers alike were profoundly affected by Mr. Hinton's story, his resilience, and his commitment to social justice."