What would it feel like to spend 30 years on death row for a crime you did not commit?
On Sunday, Oct. 29, Anthony Ray Hinton came to East Tennessee State to share his experience.
Hinton spent 30 years in an Alabama prison after being convicted of two capital murders. He was accused of using his mother’s firearm for these crimes. This was one of the longest serving death row prisoners in the state of Alabama. During his time in jail, in 2002, the Equal Justice Initiative attorneys discovered that the firearm did not match the crime. He was released on April 3, 2015.
“I forgave those who did this to me,” Hinton, who fought back tears several times during the powerful lecture, said. “Not so they can sleep better at night, but so I can.” He said no apology has ever been issued from any Alabama officials.
He held the crowd enraptured as he detailed his saga in the more than one-hour lecture. He began the story by describing that one day as a young man he was mowing his mother’s yard when two officers arrested him.
He said on the way to jail when questioned on firearm ownership that his mother owned one. He said after his conviction, for years other inmates often told him that he should have never told law enforcement about a gun they didn’t know existed.
“Mama told me to always tell the truth,” he said. “I had nothing to hide.”
A large crowd of students and faculty of ETSU, along with the community of Johnson City, gathered in the D.P. Culp Center Auditorium to listen to the story from the man himself.
He said every night he goes outside at 10:30 just to look up at the moon or stars, a sight he did not see for 30 years. “That is my Picasso. That is my Rembrandt.”
He detailed how his young niece makes fun of him when they happen to be out in the rain and he will not don rain gear or get under an umbrella. He said rain did not touch his body for 30 years, so he likes to feel it on his skin.
He said a luxury he afforded himself after 30 years of having to sleep in the fetal position was a California king-size bed. However, he said he still can never go to sleep until he curls up into the fetal position.
Hinton spoke about how everything happened, his life in jail and his beliefs on justice after being released. He expressed how justice was not served for him in relation to how race and class play a part in the American criminal justice system. “Justice is not blind,” he said. “She can see through that blindfold.” He said she knows your race and social class when you enter the courtroom.
He urged everyone in attendance that they could shine a light on injustices by voting and writing to those who represent them in government.
He concluded with a challenge. He urged everyone to sit in the bathroom for just 30 minutes when they got home from the lecture. He said they could bring along a book.
“Then imagine sitting there for 30 years,” he said. “Then imagine sitting there for 30 years for a crime you didn’t commit.”
Hinton received a standing ovation from the entire auditorium.