Anthony Ray Hinton, 60, who was exonerated in 2015 after spending three decades behind bars in Alabama on false murder charges, comes to the Bay Area this week to promote his inspirational book “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.”
How are you?
I have good days and bad days. I can’t tell you everything is fine. I still cry and sometimes my mind goes back to Death Row. Three years does not erase what 30 years has done to me.
In your book, you fantasize about marrying Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock. Have you had the chance to meet them?
I’m looking forward to that, and waiting for somebody to help make that happen. I want you to know, I didn’t use them for anything dirty; I admired them. They helped me get through some of my darkest days.
You also had encounters with the Queen of England; what did you know about her?
I was just thinking about people who had a good life, and it came to me. I’d read about her and had seen her on TV. In my own mind, she was my best friend. But I also thought, “This lady is in prison as well.” She couldn’t do everything she wanted to do.
How were you able to endure what you went through — being abused by a racist system that took away your freedom because you were black?
I was born with a mother who loved me unconditionally, and with a sense of humor. Also, there’s no point in worrying about something you can’t do anything about. The only thing I had to worry about was being on death row for murders I didn’t commit.
Were there turning points for you?
I was in a dark hole for the first three years. I didn’t read my Bible and didn’t talk to anyone. Then, one night, I heard another man laugh and I thought, “I’m going to take my life back.”
How was your faith a factor?
I dusted off my Bible and came to Mark 11:24: “What things so ever you desire, when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them.” I prayed that the truth would come out; not once did I pray to be freed, that would be selfish. I prayed for those racist white men, too. I pray for them every day.
You even joked around with the guards?
I would ask them if I could borrow their truck, and tell them I’d make sure it would have a full tank of gas when I returned it.
At one point you started a book group; why, and how was it?
I loved to read books in the free world, and there was a lot of time to sit around and do nothing in prison. When you read, it opens up your mind; it helped us take our minds away from where we were. The warden allowed six people; our first book was “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”
But the group ended after some years; why?
They were executing guys that were in it, down the list. And when younger people came in, they weren’t interested. They were angry. I understood that. When I went in, I was angry.
At the time, were you thinking of your own book?
Yes, I told the guys, it’s important to tell my story and their stories. I told them, “I’m going to tell it on every single mountain. I might even write a book about it.”
What was it like writing the book?
The lawyers had the files, so I could get the names and the correct dates in. But I didn’t have notes or a journal. I was blessed to remember from the grace of God.
What are the main messages of your book?
Don’t be so quick to seek revenge; try forgiveness. I got to know men who never knew what love is, but they still deserve love and compassion.
Can you talk a bit about your fellow inmate Henry Hays, a Ku Klux Klan member who was electrocuted for the lynching and murder of 19-year-old black man?
At first I didn’t know his father was a grand wizard of the KKK; he just lived next door, and we talked. He was taught to hate black people, he was brainwashed by his father. Where was child protective services when this young child was taught that? I’m proud that I was able to show him what love and compassion mean. He said “I love you” and then he was executed. He could have changed some people’s minds, if they had allowed him to live. He could have been an instrument for peace.
Has anyone who was responsible for your imprisonment been in touch with you since your release?
No one has ever apologized to me. The state never apologized. Every day, I wonder why. I don’t want to believe it’s because of the color of my skin.
What do you think of how technology has changed the world in the past 30 years?
I’m on an iPhone as we speak, but I’m far behind. I know email and can text and make a call, but I don’t know how to download. That’s why I first hung up on you. I was getting a call from the person giving me a ride, so I had to take that.
Can you talk a bit about your friend Lester Bailey?
He came to see me, like, 10,999 times. He came every month, didn’t miss a month, to make sure I had somebody. To this day, we live less than a block from each other. We don’t always agree on politics, but we’ve been friends for 59 years. He’s a great guy. They should put his picture in the dictionary next to the word friend.
How did you understand the complex legal terms of your case?
The legal system is full of words I never will be able to pronounce or understand, but I would ask my lawyer, for 16 years, Mr. Stevenson [Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative]. He wanted to help and wanted me to know everything going on in my case. I did have sense enough to know that for 25 or 26 years, things were bad, nothing was amounting to anything. But I knew that God sent me his best attorney.
Why did it take so long for Mr. Stevenson to bring your case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which changed for your fate?
We had to use the appeal process in the manner in which it is given. Believe me, when you’re sitting on death row, you want the appeal process to take time; as long as you’re going through it, you’re going to be alive.
Alabama went from using the electric chair to lethal injection while you were in prison; what do you think?
Death is death. You just murdered a man, regardless of how you do it.
What are you doing for fun these days?
Playing basketball, spending time at church and time with my friends. Enjoying life.
What are you looking forward to?
Well, to meeting Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock. And I hope my book will change people’s hearts. I miss my mom and pray I will see her. I hope that America will do away with the death penalty. I truly believe we are better than that.
IF YOU GO
Anthony Ray Hinton
Where: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera
When: 7 p.m. April 5
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
By Anthony Ray Hinton, Lara Love Hardin
Published by St. Martin’s Press