Human Rights - Facing Death Row

Fifteen SMU students, faculty members and others will travel by bus through the Deep South Aug. 2-10 to visit the people and places involved in operating, reporting on and opposing the death penalty in America. The 10-day experience is designed “to expose people to the physical and emotional aspects affiliated with our country’s use of the death penalty, the majority of which is carried out in the states we’ll visit – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas,” says capital punishment expert/activist Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, the trip’s sponsor.

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“Where do I go to receive justice?”

An update from Jennifer M., doctoral candidate studying prison reform:

“Where do I go to receive justice?”  Anthony Ray Hinton asked this question at the end of his presentation at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. He had just described how he came to be arrested for a double murder in 1985, and the 30 years he spent on death row in Alabama. Mr. Hinton was innocent. The story he told presented a shocking view of the white supremacist culture of the Deep South.

According to Mr. Hinton, the police who investigated his case didn’t think he was guilty, but they worked to convict him, anyway. One of these officers assured Hinton that he didn’t care if he was guilty or not, but he knew he would be convicted because he was black, a white male witness would testify against him, and he would have a white prosecutor, a white judge, and a white jury. For the first 3 years on death row at Alabama’s Holman Prison, Mr. Hinton did not speak. When necessary, he communicated in writing.  As a black man in the Deep South, the culture of white supremacy had already denied him a voice, so why would he bother to speak on death row, where he had also become invisible?

After Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative took his case, Hinton knew that only ballistic evidence could prove his innocence. The bullets that killed the murder victims were supposed to match Hinton’s mother’s gun. As he knew he had not committed the murders, he knew the bullets would not match. Hinton became tearfully emotional twice during his presentation: once when he talked about his mother dying while he was on death row, and again when he recalled telling his lawyer to find a ballistics expert who was white, male, and southern, because he knew that blacks, women, and outsiders would have absolutely no credibility in Alabama. It was indeed a bitter irony that Hinton would have to appease the white male authority that had put him on death row in order to achieve his freedom.

Three white southern ballistics experts compared bullets from Hinton’s mother’s gun with those that killed the murder victims and had found that there was no match. But  Alabama’s Attorney General would not “waste taxpayer dollars” on reviewing the new evidence. Bryan Stevenson had to take Hinton’s case to the United States Supreme Court. This whole process took another 16 years. All nine Supreme Court Justices voted in favor of the retrial that led to Hinton’s release in 2015.

Hinton lost 30 years of his life to a 5 by 7-foot cell, where he had to sleep with his knees pulled up to his chest in order to fit in the prison cot. In the days of “Big Yellow Mama,” Alabama’s electric chair, he had had to smell the odor of burning flesh each time a man was executed, a smell that hung in the air for the whole day following executions.

Anthony Ray Hinton has received no apology and no monetary compensation from the state of Alabama. Where, indeed, does he go to receive justice?

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