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Transcript: Race in America: Criminal Justice System with Anthony Ray Hinton

MS. GIVHAN: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Robin Givhan, senior critic‑at‑large at The Washington Post.

Today we are continuing our series on "Race in America" with Anthony Ray Hinton who has just released a Young Readers Edition of his best‑selling book, "The Sun Does Shine." Thank you for joining us, and welcome, Mr. Hinton.

MR. HINTON: Thank you for having me.

MS. GIVHAN: I wanted to start by reading a short excerpt from your book. "Just like anyone else, Ray had grown up with dreams: a baseball scholarship, maybe marriage and kids, a fancy job, a nice car. He had dreamed of so much but nothing like this nightmare he was living."

I'm curious. Have any of your childhood dreams come true?

MR. HINTON: If I'm going to be honest, the answer would be no, and I try not to dwell on it. I just have been a person that accept each day for what it is, and I try to move forward.

If I could say so, I know, without a doubt, I was one hell of a baseball player. I know, without a doubt, I could hit a baseball like no other, and when I hit it, God for some reason gave me the power to take it beyond the fence so I could walk around the base, because I've never been a fast runner. And I believe he gave me the power so I could take my time to get home. Even when I was younger, all of my other four siblings, they was really fast, and I was slow, but they couldn't hit a baseball like I could. And so I've always had a dream of playing in the major league. I have always had the ability to see myself in the major league.

And I went to a predominantly White school, and I played baseball. My batting average was .618 from the ninth grade to the twelfth grade. I don't know too many places that you don't at least get a look at when you got this type of batting average. I didn't‑‑was never offered any kind of scholarship to go to any junior college or university, and I began to realize that race played a part, I truly believe, in me not being accepted and getting at least an offer from schools.

And my school didn't help it at all. It was, as I said, predominantly White. It was racist, and I was there for one reason and one reason only. I was zoned there. I went there to get an education. I got the best education that I could get, and I didn't look back. I didn't worry about what wasn't, and here I am.

So, to really answer your question, no. I always have dreamed of being major league. It's kind of ironic you would ask me that question because I once went through different neighborhoods and asked young people my age at the eleven and twelfth grade, what did they want to be when they grow up, and every Black that I asked, they wanted to be lawyers and doctors and firefighters and police officers, nurses, school teacher. And I got one of my mother's friends to take me over into the White community, and asked the White student the same question, what did they want to be when they grew up. Believe it or not, the White student wanted to be the same thing as the Black student, and over the course of years, I have tried to find out what happened to this particular lady who wanted to be a nurse, what happened to this guy that wanted to be a doctor.

And I realize that for African Americans, we have been sold a false dream. When people can say you can be anything you want to be, I really believe that it's false. No matter how hard I work, no matter how good I am, I have come to believe that I am only allowed to go so far, and I have learned, I guess, in a way to accept that. I try not to worry about anything that I don't have the power to change.

MS. GIVHAN: I know you were only 29 years old when you were charged with two counts of capital murder, and the police lieutenant who detained you said that he didn't care whether you had did the crime or had not. When you heard that, did you at that point in your life think that it was just one man talking, or did you really recognize it as something that was systemic and with very deep and wide roots?

MR. HINTON: I realized at that moment it was systemic. I mean, he spoke for the entire justice system. He spoke for what he knew.

Let me say this unequivocally. I didn't fault him for what he said. At least he told me the truth. But when that same detective told me the five things that was going to find me guilty before I went to trial, that detective was dead on the money. And if I‑‑if I could meet that detective tomorrow, I would say, "Hey, you was exactly right." It was a White jury that‑‑

MS. GIVHAN: And what did‑‑I'm sorry. What did he say were the five things that would convict you, if not evidence?

MR. HINTON: He said, "There's five things they're going to convict you." He asked me the question, "Would you like to know what they are?" and I said yes. He said, "Number one, you Black. Number two, you going to have a White prosecutor. Number three, you're going to have a White judge. Number four, you're going to have an all‑White Jury," and he said, "Number five, the fact that you Black." And he said, "Do you know what that spell?" He said, "Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction." And those was the things that convicted me. Not one time did he say we have the evidence. Not one time did he say we got a witness that can place you at the scene of the crime. He said there's five things that are going to convict you, and he had the audacity to ask me would I like to know what they are. And when he told me, I couldn't say a word, and those was the five things that convicted me.

And believe it or not, when you're faced with, I guess, truth, how can you get mad? I couldn't get mad. It just showed me the type of judicial system that we have. They don't convict you by evidence. They don't convict you by word or association of some type. We have a system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty opposed to if you're poor and innocent.

I was poor and innocent, and I just happened to be born in the state of Alabama where it is, in my honest opinion, one of the hardest places to prove you're innocent if you don't have the money to hire a decent defense.

And so I sit there in that 5‑by‑7 every day, I asked myself what did I do. I didn't make myself Black. This is the way God created me. I haven't‑‑I don't have a history of violence. I don't have a history of doing things wrong. I have done something wrong but never to the extent of killing someone, fighting someone, or‑‑I believe we can disagree. I don't believe we have to throw punches, and I just couldn't understand why did they pick me of all people. Why me?

And those lies, they almost got away with taking my life had it not been for the Equal Justice Initiative, Mr. Bryan Stevenson and the lawyers they had at the time.

MS. GIVHAN: I'm curious because in the book, you know, you talk at length, obviously, about your upbringing and about your mother in particular, and one of the things that you talk about is that you were raised to respect authority‑‑

MR. HINTON: Absolutely.

MS. GIVHAN: ‑‑that you were raised to believe that the police were there to help you. I mean, how did you make sense of what you had been taught as a child and as a teenager with what was happening to you as a young adult?

MR. HINTON: Well, to be honest with you, I truly believe one have to‑‑I sit there and I believe that a mistake had been made. You have to tell yourself after asking yourself and you know you didn't do it‑‑I kept saying, well, they going to find out that they done made a mistake. They're going to come back and say, "Mr. Hinton, we're sorry. We made a mistake, and you're free to go." I believed in that up until I went to trial. Believe it or not, I believed in that even after I was convicted. I kept saying one day, a lawyer or somebody going to look at this case again and say we made a mistake, and they was going to reopen the case.

And if you go back and if you can go back, even when I was convicted, I told the judge during the sentencing phase, I said, "One day, God is going to reopen this case, and you're going to see that I did not commit this crime." I said, "But if you kill me, innocent blood will be on your hands," and it was like I seen this in the future. I really believed that one day someone would come and reopen the case, and thank God the Justice Initiative took my case. It took them 16 diligent years to finally get the court to overturn my case, and finally, I was set free on April the 3rd, 2015. But I should have never had to went through that.

I keep hearing people say "free." I don't really believe I'll ever be free again. I live with the thought of going back at any day and any time. Anytime that you're brought up to believe in a system‑‑my mom believed that the police was there to protect all people. My mother instilled in me that the police is your friend. If you haven't done anything, you have no reason to run. If you haven't done anything, you have no reason to lie.

But no one is focusing on the gun that the police department used against me. I am the one that voluntarily and told them that my mother had a pistol. They had no search warrant for‑‑to search the house for a pistol. Truth is what I stood on because my mother had instilled in me always tell the truth. That day, the truth cost me 30 years of my life, and the truth almost, almost got me executed for a crime they knew‑‑and I say it proudly‑‑they knew that I was innocent, but they didn't care.

MS. GIVHAN: Do you have look back and say to yourself, I should have run?

MR. HINTON: No. That same system that is not meant for me, that same system would have used that, "Well, why did he run?" or that same system would say, "He must be guilty. He ran." And so I stood there like a man.

You know, my‑‑let me say this. My mother brought me up, and there is one thing I will never forget the rest of my life. My mother told me one day, she said, "If you're man enough to bend down and pick up a rock and if you're man enough to throw that rock, then you should be man enough to say you throwed that rock." My mother was telling me if you're man enough to do something, be man enough to say, "I did it," regardless of the consequences, but be man enough to stand up and say, "Hey, I did it. He didn't do it. I throwed that rock."

And so I grew up just being blunt, honestly, when it came to authority. I respect authority even to this day. I truly believe that all of us should learn to respect authority, but I also believe that authority should never abuse the authority, the way they abused it on me.

MS. GIVHAN: When you mention your mother, I mean, she passed away while you were in prison, and she was stalwart in her belief in your innocence, as was your friend, Lester.

MR. HINTON: Yes.

MS. GIVHAN: Can you talk a little bit about what their support meant? And I'm curious if they ever talked about the fact that, you know, an entire family, an entire community was, in many ways, imprisoned along with you.

MR. HINTON: Well, first, you know, I‑‑my mother was a believer in God, and she brought every one of her kids up to respect others, regardless of race. My mother was a person who had unconditional love for her children, and when it came to me, my mother and I had one of the most beautiful relationships a mother and son could have.

My mother was my father as well as my mother. My father worked in the mine, and a rock fell on him, and he lost his mind. And so, therefore, my mother had to become my father, and I feared my mother in a way like I feared no man. My mother was just strict. My mother believed that a child didn't have a right to say anything but do what they was told, and so I was okay with that.

And when I got arrested, I realized at that moment that my mother watched her baby boy being kidnapped right in the very driveway that she watched the car go down, and when I got convicted, I truly believe that my mother tried to protect me as well as I tried to protect my mother. Every time I would talk to my mother, she would just ask me, "When are they going to let you come home?" and I would lie to her, and I would say, "Mama, they're working on it," or "It going to take some time, but eventually, they going to let me come home." And I told that lie to my mother every time she asked me, and I was trying to protect my mother. I didn't really know whether my mother understood that I had been found guilty and had a sentence to die.

And I kept thinking, how do I protect my mother? I wasn't worried about me, but I knew that if I was to be executed, they would also be executing my mother. And so I tried to protect my mother in ways that you couldn't even imagine. I tried to be this happy kid that goes on the visiting yard when she come and laugh and talk after I got out of‑‑the first three years, I didn't say anything, but after that, when my mother came to see me, I hugged her. I talked about how I missed her cooking. I talked about how I wish I could go fishing with her because she loved fishing. I tried to show my mother that I was okay. I didn't want my mother to know that her baby boy really was in hell and what was going on behind the prison wall. I didn't want my mother to know the abuse that one was going through. That's the love I had for my mother.

So, when she would come see me, I would put on a different face just so that hour or two hours or three hours that she was there, she didn't see any pain, she didn't see any sorrow. She just seen happiness, and I wanted her to leave knowing that I was laughing because I've always been a person believed in laughter.

MS. GIVHAN: Could you be honest with your friend, Lester?

MR. HINTON: I was, absolutely. Lester and I have had some talk that I didn't want to have. I had to pull him aside and say, "Hey, I've been found guilty of a crime you know that I didn't commit." I said, "But just in case things don't go the way that we think they should go or the way that we want them to go, I want you to be there for my mother. I want you to bring my mother to see me, but I do not want you to bring‑‑allow my mother to come and witness my execution." I knew that my mother could not take that. Her heart was fragile.

And I made him promise me that somehow that I wanted him to tell my mother what she have always told us, that at some time in some point in life, "God and only God has the right to call you home, and I want you to tell my mother the night of my execution that it was my time. She brought us up to believe that all us have a beginning date and an end date. I don't want you to get into the politics with my mother. I just want you to somehow convince my mother, God needed me the most, and Ray is okay. Ray is at peace." I hated to have that conversation, but I believe that we all should be somewhat‑‑I would call it a backup, just in case it didn't go the way that I wanted it to go. I wanted to protect my mother, even after my death.

MS. GIVHAN: I would love to talk a little bit about hope and compassion and faith, all of which played significant roles in your being able to survive all those years, and they say that sometimes hope can be a four‑letter word. How did you look at hope as‑‑did you see it as something that would get you through? Did you see it as something that was a bit dangerous to cling to?

And the other part of the question is on the subject of forgiveness. You know, people often say that, you know, to forgive is really for the person who is doing the forgiving, but does it also mean that the perpetrators are in some way let off the hook?

MR. HINTON: Well, let me start with hope. I don't believe that you nor I can lay down tonight and not have hope that we going to wake up in the morning. Hope is just another form of branch, of faith. I have to believe that there is a higher power than man. I have to believe that somehow it all started before man was ever here, and from the age of four, my mother believed in the Bible. She believed in Jesus, and she always instilled in me that God sits high, but he looks low. He will destroy, but yet he will defend, that God have no respect of a person. Whatever you want, all you have to do is ask God. She didn't say God will grant you your wish every time, but she said whatever you want, take it to God in prayer and leave it there. And if it for you, there's nothing nobody can do about it.

And so when I got to prison, all of my mother learning that she had dropped to me from the age of 4 all the way up to the age of 29 came into play. It was as though my mother knew that one day I would have to rely on her teaching as well as rely on reading the Bible for myself and believing in the Bible and believing that God do exist, and so when I sit there in that 5‑by‑7, my mother brought me up never to question God, but I questioned him when I was in that 5‑by‑7. I wanted to know what I had done so bad that I deserve to be convicted and sentenced to death. I wanted to know where was God when I was being lied on and prosecuted for a crime that he knew and I knew that I didn't commit. I wanted to know why you have you forsaken me? What did I do so bad that I deserve this? And if I'm going to be honest, in which I am, I really said God didn't live here anymore. I didn't say I didn't believe in God. I didn't say I didn't love God. I was angry with God, because who wants to be on death row for a crime they didn't commit? And I wanted to know if you have all this power, the way that I know you have this power, why you didn't allow the truth to come out?

But then I realized something. My mother told me that God ways may not be my ways. You have to stand firm and believe that he will work it out, and every night I went to bed, not one time‑‑and I mean not one time‑‑did I ask God to free me. I thought if I asked God to free me, that would be the most selfish thing I could ever do, but I prayed the prayer of truth. And I said, God, if it's your will to allow the truth to come out.

MS. GIVHAN: The state of Alabama has never apologized. I mean, how did you‑‑do you find your way to forgiveness?

MR. HINTON: Well, forgiveness is‑‑in my honest opinion, forgiveness is not about the state of Alabama. Forgiveness is about me, or forgiveness is where I could go on and live the best life that I can life, or I want people to realize that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. Forgiveness is a sign of strength. Do you know the strength that you have to have to act and forgive people that did this deliberately, had every intention of taking your life from you? Do you know the strength that it takes to say, "Hey, I forgive you"?

But what I've learned, that I am stronger than I ever thought I was because I forgave some men that don't care what they did to me, and it takes strength to do that. No one in the state of Alabama have ever had the decency to say, "Mr. Hinton, we're sorry," although I wasn't even here. I was not a part of this, but as I came on to be a part of this, I want a personal, apologize to you for the mistakes that we made, but they haven't done that.

And so I have to go on with my life as best as I can, and I have to be the bigger person. I have to go on and forgive them, and I pray that one day before they meet their maker, they will have the good sense to ask for forgiveness. They don't ever have to ask me, but as a person of faith‑‑or person that love people, a person that have compassion for another human being, I have to forgive. I have no choice, and so that forgiveness that I have forgave them, it allowed me to wake up every morning with a smile on my face. That forgiveness allowed me to wake up and say, "Hey, today is going to be a beautiful day."

MS. GIVHAN: We have just like two minutes maybe, but I did want to ask. As you think back and you think about criminal justice reform, are there‑‑is there any change that would have made a significant difference in your experience?

MR. HINTON: Oh, yes. You know, I think we have a system, as I said, that if you don't have the money to hire a decent defense, 99.9 percent of the time you would be found guilty, especially if you're born an African American male.

I look back and I think that we have a system that need changes. There are those who would have you to believe that the system is broken. I'm here today to tell you that the system is not broken. The system is working exactly the way it was designed to work.

You would have those who tell you that we're dealing with mass incarceration. We are not dealing with mass incarceration. We are dealing with a new form of slavery, and that form is to put as many men of color in the prison system as it can.

And so for me to sit here and say that everything is okay, I'm not going to do that. What would have made a difference is that if I could have had the Equal Justice Initiative on day one on my trial, and so there's an old saying in America, "You get what you pay for." I didn't have the money to pay for an attorney, and I didn't get an attorney. I got somebody that made it legal and got sentenced to death, and here I am, 37 years later. That attorney have never reached and said, "Mr. Hinton, I'm sorry I didn't give you my best." The state of Alabama have not said, "Mr. Hinton, do you need to see a psychiatry or psychology? It is on us." I have to deal with that nightmare every day of my life, but by the grace of God, I try every day to put one foot forward, to try to be light where there is darkness, to try to be understanding where there is confusion. I try to be love where there is hate, and I try my best every day to show compassion to others.

And so it is what it is. It's not perfect, but I'm trying my best to rally up the troops, and when I say the troops, I'm trying to rally the good people up in America and say, "Hey, we are better than this. We need to come together and have an open and honest conversation about race in America, and perhaps we can solve a lot of problems if we have the courage to have an open and honest conversation."

And so I get up every morning and I try to be a light for young people. I try my best to make this system what I really believe it was created to be, and that all men are created equal, regardless under the law. But I know for a fact that every day, millions of color go to prison that haven't done anything.

And so I have the ability to speak to thousands, and I'm trying my best to use my voice and my situation to enlighten people, and I hope that whoever watch or whoever read this interview, it would change their heart and say, hey, we do need to fix this system.

MS. GIVHAN: Mr. Hinton, thank you so much for being with us today. The name of the book once again is "The Sun Does Shine."

MR. HINTON: And make sure you run out and get it. Get a copy.

[Laughter]

MR. HINTON: Thank you so much.

MS. GIVHAN: We are out of time, but thank you all so much for joining me, and if you’d like to see what’s coming up on Washington Post Live, please go to WashingtonPostLive.com to register for upcoming programs.

I'm Robin Givhan, and once again, thank you for joining me.

[End recorded session]

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