An update from law student Brenda B.:

Evidence shows a direct correlation between the lynchings of African Americans at the turn of the century and the modern use of the death penalty: the more prevalent the lynchings, the more prevalent the death sentence in that same area.

In Alabama, we visited Birmingham and Montgomery, two cradle cities of the civil rights movement that developed in response to the injustices against African Americans between Reconstruction and World War II. Both cities host civil rights museums and memorials to the heroes and heroines of this era (many of whom were children), and both cities are home to three renowned advocacy organizations we visited: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). In 2018, EJI will open the nation’s first ever museum dedicated to lynchings and racial violence in America.


Most Americans know of the existence of lynchings throughout the South, but few may know of its pervasiveness. The EJI has documented more than 4,000 lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950. Described as “racial terror lynchings,” these criminal acts were largely tolerated by state and federal officials, they contributed to racial oppression and segregation, and they left African Americans no recourse to a judicial system, let alone a just and fair one.


Fortunately for us, Birmingham and Montgomery are also home to recent exonerees, heroes in their own right, who took the time to share their powerful stories with us: Gary Drinkard and Anthony Ray Hinton. It is disappointing and troubling that the judicial system that I have come to love failed these two men and many others in such an egregious way. Here are their stories–may we never forget them.

With Gary Drinkard who encouraged me, “I hope you get to become that lawyer.”


A husband and father three, Gary Drinkard was wrongfully accused of the 1993 robbery and capital murder of a junkyard dealer in Decatur, Alabama. The main witness? His half-sister and her husband who were known to burglarize to support their drug addiction and who received a reduced sentence in unrelated charges in exchange for their testimony.

Despite evidence that Gary was home at the time of the murder, and that a severe back injury would have prevented him from committing the murder, Gary spent almost 6 years on death row before he was acquitted at re-trial. When it was suggested that Gary’s mother testify on his behalf and plea for a life sentence, Gary declined: “I got Southern pride, and I told them they can kiss my ass.”

Not unlike the stories we’ve heard from other exonerees, the prosecutor in Gary’s case refuses to admit error and re-open the murder case. When a reporter asked whether he would now pursue the real killer, the prosecutor maintained, “No. He’s walking out the door.”

Gary courageously shared about the humiliation inmates endure and the taunting by guards. Once, as inmates mourned the loss of another inmate recently executed, prison guards openly and loudly ridiculed the executed inmate who had his hands and feet cuffed while guards stuffed cotton into the inmate’s anus to prevent subsequent bowel movements. Other states provide incontinence underwear, a more humane option, for this purpose.

Such circumstances can lead death row inmates to commit suicide. Gary told the story of an inmate who purposefully overdosed on a prison-provided medication. The prison staff revived the inmate, now brain dead, and executed him a few days later. In such cases, is execution a means of justice or vengeance? It appears simply barbaric to me.

Gary attributes his survival in a 5×8 cell to correspondence and writing. Two pen pal organizations shared news and photos of their lives: “That was my ‘out,’ like I was out in society.” He also wrote “silly little poems about the situation, and the anger would go away.”

Once a week, inmates were allowed to visit the law library and learn about “Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty,” an Alabama death row, prisoner-founded and prisoner-run organization established in 1989. “You were really harming yourself if you didn’t take advantage of that,” Gary said. “You were likely to get the same shoddy lawyers [on appeal], and you would be right back in there.” Though he is a free man, Gary lived the initial years after his release in fear that the police would come after him. Prison had its effect long after his imprisonment causing him anxiety and depression.

Gary is a dedicated speaker for Witness to Innocence, the only national organization in the U.S. composed of and led by exonerated death row survivors and their family members. His story touched me deeply, and I asked if he had any words of wisdom to us, law students, in the group: “You have to defend your client. You will meet some sorry clients, and you will have them, but you have to defend them too.”

Anthony Ray Hinton served 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. His case represents the urgent need for reform.


If there is a case that demands reform, it is the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years (30 years!) on death row for a crime he did not commit. The officer who arrested him openly stated, “I don’t care if you did or didn’t do this [murder]. I’m going make sure you are found guilty.” The officer then proceeded to list five reasons why this would happen: 1. Hinton is black, 2. the victim was a white man who was shot, 3. white prosecutor, 4. white judge, and 5. all white jury. The officer them proceeded to say that all that added up to C-O-N-V-I-C-T-I-O-N. The officer spelled it out 5 times.

The first lawyer assigned to his case openly stated, “I didn’t go to law school to do pro bono work.” When Hinton professed his innocence, the lawyer added, “All y’all always saying you didn’t do something you did do.” With ineffective assistance of counsel, Anthony was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row.

What followed for Anthony, a visibly gentle person who claims his mother is the person he loved most in the world, was three years of silence. He would write down his answers to those sought to engage him, until one day, an inmate in a nearby cell began weeping loudly. Surprised by the cries of a man he never imagined crying, he recalled thinking, “No matter what, that person deserves compassion.” Anthony reached out to him and soon learned that the man’s mother had passed away. Anthony comforted him and, in return, he found his voice again. In that moment, he realized two things about himself: that he was loved unconditionally by his mother, and that he had a sense of humor. For example, to escape his “30 years of hell,” Anthony imagined himself faithfully married to Halle Berry, until along came Sandra Bullock. Halle was OK with the divorce and his new marriage. From time to time, he would return to his body to find out if “everything was OK,” and then he would escape once again into his fantasy world.

After the comic relief, the conversation got serious again. Anthony knew what he was up against if he was going to be acquitted. So he demanded that he have not just one, but three experts; that they be white men; must be the very best bullet experts (not just any expert would do); and they must be from the South. Anthony recalled, “Here I am on death row, and I have to worry about one gender and one race.”

Even after three of the best ballistic experts testified that the bullets and the gun in evidence could not support the murder charges against Anthony, both the prosecutor and the attorney general refused to take one hour to look at the evidence because they “did not have the time.” Anthony looked far off, took long pauses, and wiped tears from his eyes. For another 16 years, Anthony sat on death row. Even after the Supreme Court unanimously found Anthony innocent, the state of Alabama has still not issued him an apology or any compensation.

“Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice,” stated Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the EJI in Montgomery, and Hinton’s attorney on appeal, in an interview following Mr. Hinton’s release. On meeting Bryan for the first time, Anthony recalls shaking Bryan’s hand and thinking, “God has sent his best soldier.” Anthony’s powerful story is documented in a 60 Minutes episode.

This post originally appeared on the Law & Human Rights blog.