Last Updated on October 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
Bias in the US Criminal Justice System
Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested for crimes he could not have committed, as he was miles away. The severity of the crimes—the murder of two men—and the fact that the victims were white put pressure on the Alabama authorities to quickly solve the...
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Bias in the US Criminal Justice System
Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested for crimes he could not have committed, as he was miles away. The severity of the crimes—the murder of two men—and the fact that the victims were white put pressure on the Alabama authorities to quickly solve the case. Mistakes made by Hinton's public defender and deliberately misleading evidence and faulty testimony—including testimony from a partly blind ballistics expert—were among the factors that accounted for his conviction. Hinton explains that race was the primary factor his unjust conviction but poverty also played a significant role, as he could not afford a private attorney.
Hinton struggles to describe the complex feelings of knowing he is innocent while being the solitary black man in an all-white courtroom, explaining that it felt at though his “very soul was put on trial and found lacking.” Comparing his ordeal to slavery and lynching, Hinton emphasizes the racial aspect of the injustices perpetrated against him: Hinton had an unbreakable alibi for the time of the murders of which he was accused, tried, and convicted, and police officers frankly admitted to him that his individual guilt or innocence was less important than their belief that a black man had committed the crime. In their minds, this certainty justified punishing any black man.
The reluctance of the courts to admit errors and wrongdoing are also evident from Hinton’s experience. Once his case had been taken up by Bryan Stevenson, the attorneys from the Equal Justice initiative team managed to bring his case before the Alabama courts once more. However, the state refused to retry the case, forcing Stevenson to attempt to bring his case to the US Supreme Court.
Determination and Perseverance
Although he knew that the odds were slim that he would survive death, much less be exonerated or released, Hinton was determined to do both those things. Not only did he obtain an attorney who specialized in cases like his, but he also became involved in research and advocacy. Hinton is able to make the complexities of the justice system feel accessible to people who have never had a comparable experience, laying out the processes involved and the dulling monotony of following and repeating countless steps. He was already fifteen years into his term when Stevenson's team took on his case, and it took another fifteen years before he finally achieved exoneration.
The diverse ways that Hinton organized his own time and extended himself to working with fellow inmates also required perseverance, including a campaign to have reading materials made available inmates on death row and taking the initiative to start up a death row book club. Hinton's struggles are almost unimaginable, and he makes it clear the support and faith from his mother and a close friend who visited him helped strengthen his resolve when he felt it flagging.
Along with its broader applicability and indictment of the criminal justice system, Hinton's memoir is powerful because it is uniquely his own. His personal journey during three decades of incarceration is about far more than waiting for a change to occur or even having the tenacity to pursue a solution. He writes movingly of the internal changes that he experienced, which did not come about in a unified or linear fashion. The frustration and anger of his early years in prison were not simply replaced by hope once he secured the right kind of legal representation, and periods of despair were a constant companion.
Hinton explains that it was not just the loss of his own personal freedom but also the knowledge that he was surrounded by men who had no hope of release that damaged him most. More than fifty of his fellow inmates on death row were executed during his years in prison. One of those, whom he befriended, was a white former Ku Klux Klan member who had lynched a young black man. Hinton discovered that the challenging experience of learning to trust and develop intimacy with others was crucial, as it was a way to give others strength and become stronger himself.
Ultimately, Hinton asks himself the hardest questions: “Do we choose love or do we choose hate? Do we help or do we harm?” The “freedom” he mentions in the title refers to both physical freedom and the internal sense of self that helped him through dark times. The question of forgiveness looms large in Hinton’s chronicle of his personal transformation, and he insists that inner freedom could not have been gained had he not learned to forgive those who placed him in that dire predicament.