In 1985 Anthony Ray Hinton was charged with the murders of two restaurant managers in Birmingham, Alabama. A jury found him guilty, a judge sentenced him to death. But he was innocent. Ray stayed on death row until the US Supreme Court overturned his sentence in 2015—nearly thirty years later.
Ray Hinton’s story is astounding on so many levels. Perhaps what is most astounding is that Ray was able to face those twenty-eight gruelling, unfair years with joy. How? I told Ray’s story on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought segment recently.
Guilty… of Being Black
Imagine mowing the lawn one day when police officers arrive and arrest you on charges of murder. Imagine knowing you’re innocent—you had been at work fifteen miles away from where the crimes happened—but the officers joke about that not mattering. Imagine expecting justice to be done, for your alibi to be vindicated. Then imagine being found guilty and being sent to death row, where you’ll stay for the next twenty-eight years.
Life in prison was hell for Ray. Inmates cried out at night from nightmares. The lights would flicker whenever the electric chair was turned on. Ray’s room was next to the execution room—when a prisoner was executed he heard and smelt it.
Ray developed ways to cope on death row. He started a reading group among the inmates. He took imaginary journeys to different places, dreamed of marrying Sandra Bullock, even imagined having tea with the Queen! But as the years went on Ray faced repeated injustice. His conviction was falsely based on a revolver found at his mother’s house, which hadn’t been fired in over twenty years and for which proper ballistics tests were not done. When he took a lie detector test and passed, the results were conveniently ruled inadmissible in court. It became clear Ray’s ‘crime’ was nothing more than being black.
The Brightest Day
It took a decade for decent legal expertise to come to Ray’s aid and, when it came in the form of ‘God’s best lawyer’ Bryan Stevenson, another fifteen years of battles were still ahead. But finally, on Good Friday April 3rd 2015, the US Supreme Court overturned Ray’s conviction. ‘The sun was shining bright,’ he said of the day he walked out of jail, ‘—brighter than I ever seen it shine in my life.’
“I Cannot Hate Them”
On the BBC radio program where I first heard Ray’s story, the journalist noted that Ray didn’t seem bitter toward those who’d wronged him. Ray replied, ‘I cannot hate [them] because my Bible teaches me not to hate.’ Here for me was the most profound part of Ray’s story.
In his memoir The Sun Does Shine, Ray describes how on the day he was sentenced he told the prosecutor, the bailiffs and the forensics experts who had all just lied about him on oath that he forgave them and would pray for them. One day they would answer to God for what they’d done, and he would ask God to forgive them before that fateful day came. Ray ended up praying for those men every day he was on death row. And any bitterness, he said, was replaced with joy—a joy from God that prison couldn’t take away.
Jesus once said he was the Light of the world and anyone who followed him wouldn’t walk in darkness. It’s an audacious claim. For me, Ray Hinton’s life has put that claim to the test. Maybe his brightest day wasn’t when he left prison, but each day of those twenty-eight hellish years that he was able to face with joy.
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