'I Was Wrongly Jailed for 30 Years, but Finally Just Voted for a President'

The day I was arrested was perhaps the hottest day of July, 1985. And like anyone, when you know you haven't done anything wrong, you don't wake up and worry about the police. I had been enjoying some of my mom's homemade lemonade before she asked me to cut the grass. I remember I didn't want to do it because it was so hot outside. About 25 minutes into the task, I happened to look up and there stood two white gentlemen who I didn't know and had never seen before.

They told me who they were and they said they had a warrant for my arrest. But when I asked what the charges were, I was told they would tell me later. On the way to Birmingham County Jail in Alabama, they asked me if I owned a firearm and I said no, but that my mom owned an old pistol that she kept around the house in case of snakes.

I kept asking: "Why am I being arrested?" but they wouldn't tell me. I must have asked them 50 times. On the 51st time I asked, the officer who wasn't driving turned red in the face and he turned around and said: "You want to know why we arrested you? We're going to charge you with first degree robbery, first degree kidnapping and first degree attempted murder." When I told them they had the wrong person, the officer told me that he didn't care if I had done it or not, he was going to make sure I was convicted for it.

Before my trial one of the detectives told me that he believed I hadn't committed the crime. He also said that since "all of y'all," meaning Black people, were always defending one another, why didn't I take this rap for one of my "own boys" who had done it? When he said that, tears fell down my cheeks.

I was eventually charged with two capital murders. My case essentially revolved around ballistics tests; the State of Alabama said that the gun that was in my mother's house matched the bullets that were in the deceased men's bodies. I knew that was a lie. But that is the "evidence" with which they convicted me.

On December 17, 1986, the judge stood up and told me that I had been found guilty by a jury of my peers, and that it was the order of the court that he was sentencing me to death. In that moment, I lost my vision.

I was in solitary confinement for 30 years. There were days when I didn't come out of my cell and there were periods where I didn't go outside. I wish I could say that race had nothing to do with me spending 30 years in a 5ft by 7ft cell, but if I told you anything other than that, I would be telling you a lie. It shook my faith in the justice system.

I told myself that I needed to erase the world that I once knew, and that I needed it to make this cell as big as I could make it. Although I had no knowledge I would be sitting in that cell for 30 years, I began to create a world in my mind that I could live in. In that world I told myself that I played professional sports. I played baseball for the New York Yankees and we won the World Series for five straight years. I played in Wimbledon, and I won against the best; Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. I had to think about how to survive until someone came along to help me.

I made the hell of death row bearable by using my mind to go eat the finest food and travel all over the world. I went to see Queen Elizabeth II and I married Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock. I often tell people that I'd like to meet them and explain to them that there was nothing sordid about it. I was just around men for 365 days a year, and I wanted to talk to a female, and those are the two ladies I have always admired.

The Equal Justice Initiative had monitored my case and in 2002 their attorney, Bryan Stevenson, found three world renowned firearms experts who all confirmed that the bullets didn't come close to matching my mom's gun. We took this new evidence to a number of Attorney Generals in the State of Alabama and they refused to allow a retrial for the bullets to be re-examined.

I sat there in a cell for another 13 years. During that time, I began to worry that my mom would pass. I couldn't understand in the name of justice why they would not re-examine the bullets and I came to realize that my life was not worth one hour to those people. My mom passed in 2002, and overall it took 16 years of litigation before Bryan Stevenson decided to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and they made a ruling that I was entitled to relief—the Court recognized that my constitutional rights had been violated. The State of Alabama re-examined the bullets and then notified the judge that they were dropping all charges against me.

voting, racism, prison, freedom
After spending 30 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, Anthony Ray Hinton voted in a presidential election for the first time on November 3, 2020. Courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative

When I walked out of Birmingham County Jail on April 3, 2015, it was bittersweet. The bitterness was that my mom had passed. I had always wanted to be able to walk into the hall and tell her I was home and free. The sweetness was the fact that I was finally able to breathe fresh air and see the sun. I was able to hug my best friend Lester, who had visited me every week for 30 years, knowing that I didn't have to say goodbye in a few hours.

There is nothing in this world like your freedom. When you sit in a cell like I did for 30 years, everything in the world seems bigger. Freedom to me meant that I had to find a way to forgive those men that did this to me. To this day, I have not received an apology, or a penny for taking 30 years of my life, from the State of Alabama. I forgave them and I don't expect them to ever say they are sorry. But that's OK. I just want to live the best life I can, and be able to do the things I am doing now, like voting.

I wasn't yet eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election, but after submitting paperwork, in 2017 I was able to vote in the special Senate election. The fact that I could now vote was uplifting, like a breath of fresh air and I felt alive.

I have always felt that when Black people weren't able to vote, something was taken away from them. If someone will go to the trouble of making it so hard for you to do something, then it must be worth fighting to do. At one time right here in the state I live in, Alabama, I couldn't go to the front of a restaurant, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus or marry outside my race. But through demonstrating for your freedom to vote and voting, things change. I have seen that when Black people were able to vote, changes came with their vote.

So I have to vote for the men and women that were lynched and killed, and couldn't vote. And I have to vote for my momma. On November 3, when I finally voted in a presidential election for the first time, I said: "Momma, we're going to vote for this person." And it seemed like in my mind I could hear her say: "Yes, that's what I was thinking."

When I vote, I vote to make changes to the justice system, I vote hoping to make changes with climate action and I hope to bring racism to a standstill. I vote because my grandparents and my mom weren't born with the opportunity to vote. I could never take it for granted. I say to myself that I'm doing it not only for myself but the ones who paved the way for me.

But I hate that I didn't get the opportunity to vote for the first Black president of the United States and I hope that I'm given an opportunity to vote for a Black president in the near future.

I've always believed in not just voting but trying to find out as much as you can about the person you are leaning towards. Find out what they stand for, what their leanings are on racism, climate change and such. I try to be educated when I vote.

voting, racism, prison, freedom
Anthony Ray Hinton outside a polling station in Alabama. On November 3, 2020, Hinton voted in his first presidential election since being freed after serving 30 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. Anthony Ray Hinton

And I hope that every time I vote for someone they will try to make my life better. That's the best feeling in the world; to know that I have a chance to say who is the district attorney, the governor and the attorney general. Some of those people who held those roles in the past did me wrong. And now I have a chance to contribute to putting people in power who will treat everyone fairly. That makes me smile. It makes me feel free.

I voted without any doubt, shame or remorse for Joe Biden. I don't always vote Democrat, I listen to candidates. When I was locked up in prison I realized that some people who are Democrats might not have my interests at heart either. So, I try and listen. Are they being truthful? Do they believe in what they say they are about? I believe everybody deserves a chance. But if I vote for you this time and you don't show me anything, if you run again, you've lost my vote.

When I first came home, I felt that I wasn't healed and I wasn't well enough to bring someone into my life because of what I've been through. Five years later, I've been able to work so many things out. So maybe I could start to look for someone to date. I would love to be able to find a great mate and just see where it leads.

I think the person people see now is based on what my mother instilled in me a long time ago, when I was growing up in Alabama. It was one of the most racist states you could live in at the time, but my momma brought me up to always be able to forgive a person who did you wrong. She would tell me that there are people who would dislike me, simply because of the color of my skin and that those were the people she wanted me to love and pray for.

I didn't understand it as a child. But as I got older, I understood her more than ever. Never in my life did it make more sense than when I went to prison. I knew that I hadn't done anything and I knew these were the men, those who had jailed me, that my momma was telling me to love and pray for regardless.

My mother would always tell me that I'm not responsible for how people treat me, but I am responsible for how I treat them. And so, I try to get up every morning and treat people with the utmost respect, I try to give them a smile if they don't have one of their own. I try to be a light for those that are in darkness. Life is too short to worry about anything other than living.

Anthony Ray Hinton was falsely accused of committing two murders outside of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1985. He was wrongly convicted and spent nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row. With the assistance of the Equal Justice Initiative, led by attorney Bryan Stevenson, Mr. Hinton was exonerated and freed in 2015. He has become a powerful advocate against the death penalty and speaks nationally about the urgent need for criminal justice reform. He has written a memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.