The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wrongly convicted, he was on death row for decades. On Tuesday, he cast a vote for president.

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Anthony Ray Hinton did not sleep very well the night before Tuesday’s presidential election. He woke up at 5 a.m., showered, brewed himself some coffee and, not knowing how long he would have to wait, made himself breakfast that would stick to his ribs.

When Hinton was done eating, about half past six, he drove to the polling location where he would cast his first vote in a presidential election since he was released from Alabama’s death row.

The 64-year-old, whose story was featured in the HBO documentary film “True Justice,” is one of thousands of formerly incarcerated Americans who are casting ballots amid a new movement to restore their reentry into society and a reckoning on criminal justice and racism in America.

In 1985 Hinton was charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of two fast-food restaurant managers in Birmingham, Ala., with the charges hinging on a revolver that had belonged to his mother. Convicted, he was sentenced to death and held in solitary confinement on Alabama’s death row for 28 years, before being exonerated.

“You don’t know freedom until it’s taken from you,” Hinton told The Washington Post on Tuesday night.

“Being locked up for 30 years made me realize how important the vote was,” He added. “By not voting, you allow people to get into the driver’s seat that allows them to oppress you even more.”

Hinton was freed on the morning Friday, April 3, 2015, the 152nd death row inmate exonerated since 1983, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

Firearms experts convened by an Equal Justice Initiative attorney testified in 2002 that the revolver was not the weapon used in the murders of the two fast-food managers. Hinton was granted a new trial, and the charges were dismissed after prosecutors said that the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences determined that the bullets that killed the restaurant managers could not have been used with Hinton’s mother’s gun.

Hinton wasn’t eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election. The Equal Justice Initiative assisted Hinton so that he could cast a ballot for Doug Jones in the 2017 special Senate election. In 2020, all of the candidates he voted for were Democrats.

In 2018, Alabama residents who were previously convicted of felonies were able to register to vote under the Moral Turpitude Act of 2017. Some 300,000 Alabamians had completed sentences but still didn’t have the ballot, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group working to create more fairness in the criminal justice system.

In recent days leading up to the vote, Hinton had been thinking more about his grandparents and his parents, who he said weren’t allowed to vote because of voter suppression such as literacy tests, polls taxes and intimidation. “To me this was a day of freedom dedicated to them, and all of the people who have been lynched, oppressed, or intimidated or disenfranchised from voting.”

“From a symbolic perspective, it is deeply meaningful that Mr. Hinton voted today in Alabama,” said Blair Bowie, legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, which focuses on voting rights restoration. Alabama’s Jim Crow-era constitution “openly intended felony disenfranchisement and the biased criminal legal system that ensnared Mr. Hinton to work hand in hand to squash Black political power,” she added. “Casting a ballot represents a culmination of Mr. Hinton’s victory over that system.”

Voting for the first time “was like a breath of fresh air. I realized I was there because the wrong people were in office and I had a chance to begin to put men and women that are going to uphold the Constitution.”

Although he spent nearly three decades on death row and solitary confinement for a crime that he didn’t commit, Hinton said he still feels a kinship with returning citizens whose ballots represent another step in the direction of freedom and contributing to society as a free citizen of the United States.

As it concerns Alabama, however, a representative from the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama said that Hinton has yet to receive an official apology or any restitution due him from the state of Alabama.

Hinton hopes that will change, and his vote on Tuesday gave him hope that it will change soon.

“I couldn’t vote at one time in the state of Alabama, you couldn’t marry outside of your race, you had to go to the back to get something to eat. This is the state of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat … and we changed things through legislation and the vote.

“So I believe in the promise of hope alive,” he said.