I first came across the name Anthony Ray Hinton when I wrote about the extraordinary civil rights campaigner Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson, a black, Harvard-educated lawyer who grew up in segregated Delaware, is a man of immense personal courage. He has spent his working life practising out of an office over the road from a former slave market, trying to right some of the ingrained injustice of the penal system in the American south; in particular, he has campaigned on behalf of young black men sentenced to death, based on trials of dubious merit. He has saved more than 100 men from the electric chair through forensic re-examination of evidence in this way, as well as successfully campaigning to overturn a law that allowed juveniles to be incarcerated, often in solitary confinement, for life. Stevenson is the closest the real world offers to Atticus Finch – except that his work never really has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Anthony Ray Hinton’s story was perhaps the longest running case on Stevenson’s books. Hinton was convicted in 1985 of the attempted murder of a restaurant manager in Alabama. At the time of the shooting, Hinton was on a night shift, cleaning a warehouse 15 miles away from where the attack happened. He worked in a secure facility in which everyone had to sign in and out. He had never been in trouble with the police or even in a fight at school. He was convicted, however, having been picked out of an identity parade by the restaurant manager, who survived. A gun was found at his mother’s house, one she had owned for years, and on this basis – though no ballistics expert appeared at the trial – Hinton was convicted not only of this crime, but also of two other similar murders in the area, and sentenced to death.
When Stevenson took up the case in 1999, he engaged independent firearms experts who unanimously agreed that Hinton’s mother’s gun was not that used in the murders. It took another 16 years of contested litigation, however, for Hinton’s case to be reheard by the Alabama courts, and for his acquittal. During his time in jail, Hinton watched 54 men walk past his door on their way to be executed. His cell was 5ft wide and 7ft long. The execution chamber was 30ft from where he was held. In that time, Stevenson recalls in an introduction to this book, Hinton became a remarkable man. “He learned to engage those around him and create an identity on death row like nothing I’ve ever seen. Not only did he shape the lives of other death row prisoners but also those correctional officers who sought Mr Hinton’s advice on everything from marriage and faith to the struggles of day-to-day life.”
Hinton’s account of the way he existed through what he called his “legal lynching” is a story of forgiveness and struggle – and a story of friendship and imagination. Lester Bailey had been Hinton’s first friend when they were both four years old and their mothers let them play together. He visited Hinton for 30 years and while their lives, inside and outside jail, developed a horrible kind of asymmetry – Bailey got married, had kids; Hinton just got older – they never lost their love for each other. Lester had sat with him in the courtroom where, as he was convicted, Hinton made a long speech asking for forgiveness for his prosecutors, professing his faith in justice: “The police case is closed. But God ain’t closed the case and he ain’t about to close it,” he said. Lester nodded at him at that point. “The case was going to be reopened by God, but Lester and I were going to give him every help we could.”
It took nearly 14 years, Hinton believes, for God to do his stuff and send Bryan Stevenson to his cell, and then nearly as many again for the supreme court to rule unanimously that his case be reopened and for all charges against him be dropped. In those years, he learned an awful lot about time; how to bend and shape it. His wonderful memoir recreates the ways he escaped from his cell in his head – had tea with the Queen of England, married Halle Berry – and how he shared that possibility with his fellow death row inmates. He persuaded the guards to let them start a book group (inevitably, among the first up was To Kill a Mockingbird); he mentored prisoners about the need to replace anger and despair with hope and self-respect. On the day Stevenson came, though, he sank to his knees and said a heartfelt prayer: “I trust things happen in your time, Lord, so I’m not going to ask why you didn’t send Bryan earlier… [but] take care of him because he is doing your work…”