The Profile Dossier: Anthony Ray Hinton, the Innocent Man on Death Row

"When you are hanging at the end of your rope, does it really matter what color the hand is that reaches up to help you?”

As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.

Imagine serving 30 years on death row for a crime you did not commit.

In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and wrongfully charged with two counts of capital murder in Alabama. Hinton knew it was a case of mistaken identity and naively believed that the truth would prove his innocence and set him free.

But as a poor black man in the South, Hinton was sentenced to death by electrocution. He maintained his innocence through the entire duration of the 30 years he served on death row, which makes him one of the longest serving death row prisoners in Alabama history. 

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, helped Hinton win his release in April 2015. Upon his exoneration, Stevenson said, “I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.”

Hinton’s story touched me so profoundly because it’s about the failure of our criminal justice system, but it’s also about something else — the antifragility of the human spirit. 

In his time on death row, Hinton watched 54 men walk past his cell to be executed. Another 22 took their own lives. “My cell was 30 feet from the chamber, and I could smell the burning flesh,” he writes. Yet he managed to maintain hope and befriended those society had given up on.

On death row, Hinton formed a friendship with a fellow inmate named Henry Francis Hays, who he later found out was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Hays was on death row for beating a black teenage boy to death. Hinton invited Hays into his prison book club where they read books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Hinton believes that society taught Hays how to hate, but he taught him how to love.

These were Hays’s final words on the night of his execution: “All my life, my father, my mother, and my community taught me to hate,” he said. “The very people they taught me to hate were the very people who taught me how to love. And tonight, as I leave this world, I leave this world knowing what love feels like.” 

(Photo credit: Hal Yeager/AP)

READ.

On the power of hope: After years of darkness, Hinton’s first words as a free man were: “The sun does shine.” Hinton’s memoir was one of the most heart-wrenching, moving, and powerful books I’ve ever read. It demonstrates that you can take away someone’s freedom, but their hope, imagination, sense of humor, and spirit can stay intact even after decades of solitude.

On surviving death row: Hinton spent nearly three decades in a 5’x7’ cell by himself. Even as the days turned into years, Hinton never lost hope that he would one day get out. “In jail, you spend all your time thinking of the things you’re going to eat, only to get out and discover you want nothing,” he says. “After sleeping in the fetal position for years, I dreamed of stretching out. I’ve been out of prison for a year and half now, and I have yet to stretch out.”  

On maintaining his sanity: Hinton harnessed the power of his mind to escape the brutal reality of being alone with his mind 24 hours a day. In solitary confinement, many people have mental breakdowns, give up, and commit suicide. How did he keep himself sane all these decades? “I tried to make everybody that I came in contact with laugh — from prison guard to the wardens to the inmates,” he says. “The only thing that kept me from losing my mind was my sense of humor.”

LISTEN.

On the search for meaning: For the first three years of death row, Hinton refused to speak to anyone. One evening, a fellow inmate was crying inconsolably for hours on end. His mother had died. At that moment, Hinton ended his three years of silence because he felt the human impulse to lessen another man’s suffering. Hinton says, “When you are hanging at the end of your rope, does it really matter what color the hand is that reaches up to help you?” He realized that what gives us meaning is lending a helping hand to those around us rather than catering to our own selfish interests.

On forgiveness and love: In this conversation with Oprah, Hinton opens up about his friendship with Henry Francis Hays. Hinton started a book club, which was composed of five men, two of whom were members of the KKK. “We didn’t know each other, but we came together as a bunch of men that people believed the world would be better if we weren’t in it,” he says. Hinton says he took the opportunity to teach his fellow inmates the importance of love, kindness, and forgiveness. 

WATCH.

On reforming the justice system: In this moving talk, Hinton asks the audience two questions: “What would you do if you had been waiting your whole life to die for a crime you didn’t commit? What would you do if after 30 years, they finally set you free?”The system is badly broken, he says, and we can do our part by asking those in power tough questions about the death penalty, the justice system, and the treatment of the poor.   

On adapting to a changed world: When Hinton was finally released in 2015, his friend Lester drove him to visit his mom’s grave. In the car, he heard an unfamiliar voice telling them to turn right in one tenth of a mile. Hinton turned to Lester and said, “Did you hear that? Is there a white lady in this car?” That’s when he learned about GPS and understood just how much technology had evolved since 1985. “To this day, I still don’t understand why you would text someone when you can just call them and tell them what you want,” he says. 

TECHNIQUES TO TRY.

It’s the small moments that matter: Since Hinton was released, he began soaking up every tiny moment that we take for granted. For example, he hadn’t felt the sensation of rain on his skin in 30 years. To this day, he doesn’t use an umbrella. He’s experienced many more moments of wonder and awe in the last five years. You can pump your own gas. Credit cards allow you to make a purchase in a matter of seconds. You can use your phone to take a picture. He even finds joy in going to Walmart: “This is a one-stop place? It’s amazing.” Think about everything you fail to appreciate because, Hinton says, “No one can understand what freedom means until they don’t have it.”

Visualize a better reality: On death row, Hinton figured out a technique that was able to get him out of his tragic circumstances: Daydreaming. While in his cell, Hinton traveled the world, married Halle Berry, had tea with Queen Elizabeth, and won Wimbledon — all in his mind. “I never used my mind for garbage,” he says. “I used it to cope through some lonely days.” Hinton started a book club for fellow inmates who also wanted to experience the power of visualization. If you don’t already have an active imagination, he says, reading a book can catapult you into new, more exciting worlds.

Find the good in the awful: It’s hard to imagine you’d be able to forgive those who abused the system and sentenced you to death, but Hinton sees it differently. "I’ve never had an apology, but I forgave those involved in my conviction long before I left prison. I didn’t forgive them so they can sleep well at night. I did it so I can." Research shows that people who are good at framing negative life events in positive ways have better mental health. Even though he endured 30 years of mental and physical anguish, Hinton still manages to find peace, gratitude, and humor in his experience. “They took my 30s, my 40s, and my 50s,” he says. “But what they couldn’t take was my joy. I couldn’t do a thing about the years, but I could control my joy.” 

Realize that everything in life is a choice: No matter where you are in life — enjoying freedom or waiting to die on death row — you always have choices. And those choices matter. “Death row taught me that it all matters,” Hinton says. “Do we choose love or do we choose hate? Do we help or do we harm? Because there is no way to know the exact second your life changes forever. You can only begin to know that moment by looking in the rearview mirror. And trust me when I tell you that you never, ever see it coming.”

The mental shackles are harder to escape: After Hinton’s release, he spent the night at his friend Lester’s house. As he tried to go to sleep in the guest room, he began heaving and feeling nauseous. He ran to the bathroom, shut the door, and immediately felt at ease. “The bathroom was almost exactly the size of my cell,” he says. “I stretched out on the floor with my head resting on the bathmat. I would sleep in here tonight. This felt like home.” Hinton still wakes up at 3 a.m. some nights because that’s when the prison served breakfast. He still knows which day they served fish. “My mind goes back there every single day, and I realize it was easier for my mind to leave the row when I was inside than it is now that I’m free,” he says. 

Raise your voice: What’s the best way to enact lasting change? Hinton says you can start by inviting someone to an honest conversation. “We need to talk more about the justice system in this country,” he says. He often tells young people that this country wasn’t given to them. People died and sacrificed their lives so we can enjoy what we have today. “You need to get up and fight for something,” he says. “Because I’m afraid what happened to me will happen to someone else. We need to get up and make people understand we won’t tolerate this any longer.”

QUOTES TO REMEMBER.

“Justice only happens when good people take a stand against injustice.”

“Everything, I realized, is a choice. And spending your days waiting to die is no way to live.”

“I was afraid every single day on death row. And I also found a way to find joy every single day. I learned that fear and joy are both a choice.”

“No baby is born a murderer. No toddler dreams of being on death row someday. Every killer on death row was taught to be a killer—by parents, by a system, by the brutality of another brutalized person—but no one was born a killer.”

“Right now, wherever you are, whoever you are, you can reach out to your fellow man or woman and bring your own light to the dark places.”

“When you are trying to survive, the superficial things don’t matter anymore. When you are hanging at the end of your rope, does it really matter what color the hand is that reaches up to help you?”

“There’s no sadder place to be in this world than a place where there’s no hope.”

“Sometimes life is so damn heavy, the only choice is to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.”

“Pain and tragedy and injustice happen—they happen to us all. I’d like to believe it’s what you choose to do after such an experience that matters the most—that truly changes your life forever.”

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