30 Years on Death Row: A Voice of Prophecy

When I was a college freshman in 1984, I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life somehow affiliated with a university. And, since then, I have been. The reason I decided this is that I loved the company, both the professors and students, but also all of the really interesting, life-changing people that regularly show up on a college campus. There is really nothing like it.

One such person came to my university tonight: Anthony Ray Hinton, an African-American many who spent 30 years on the Alabama death row for crimes he did not commit. In 1985, Hinton was arrested for a robbery and picked out of a police lineup in which he was the only person of color. When his alibi proved airtight he was charged with two counts of murder connected to other robberies committed around the same time. The only witness was the victim of the robbery that he was not charged with because he was in a warehouse full of other people when it occurred. The police produced a statement that the same gun was used in all three events.

The actual case was a classic deep-South racist travesty—somewhere in between a John Grisham novel and a Reba McEntire song. The police picked him up for a crime he could prove he did not commit and pinned two other crimes on him with evidence that any competent attorney would have challenged and easily defeated. The public defender was resentful at having to defend him and, when Hinton claimed innocence, said “you boys always do things and deny it.” And the prosecutor knowingly presented perjured ballistics testimony that was later proved false. The all-white jury convicted him in an afternoon. After the trial, the prosecutor was heard to say, “we know he didn’t do these, but at least we got one of them off the street.”

But then it gets really disgusting. By 2002, attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative had rock-solid proof, not only that the bullets in the case did not come from the revolver that Hinton’s mother kept in a dusty drawer, but that they did not even match each other. The three sets of bullets did not come from the same gun, and none of them came from a gun that could be traced to Hinton. But they could not convince three successive Attorneys General and 14 state judges to even review the evidence. When the appeal finally made it to the Supreme Court, the Justices voted 9-0 to vacate the conviction, and the state acknowledged that it did not even have enough evidence to refile the case.

But the most disturbing thing about Anthony Hinton’s case is that it is not unique. Not even close. Since 1972, more than 150 death row inmates have been completely exonerated by genetic or ballistic evidence proving that they could not have committed the crime they were imprisoned for. And more than a third of all death sentences handed out since this time have been reversed or overturned on appeal. A recent study shows that execution is only the third most likely result of a death sentence, behind reversal and death by natural causes.

What this means is that 1) we do not have a functional death penalty in the United States; we have a gruesome and cynical tradition of political theatre that assigns a very small percentage of convicted murderers to die in the name of “being tough on law and order”; 2) the small percentage of people so sentenced are, in hugely disproportionate numbers, African-American, poor, and vulnerable; and 3) we have managed to create an appeals system that sees actual innocence as irrelevant.

And we call this justice.

When I referred to Anthony Ray Hinton’s message tonight in a public forum, I described it as “prophetic.” More than a few people at my Methodist university shook their heads and wondered what I meant. Here’s what I meant:

“Prophecy” is one of the least understood concepts in modern religious discourse. It deals only incidentally with predicting the future and only very recently with declaring God’s will about meeting schedules. Prophecy at its heart is a voice of warning—warning that our actions as a society are out of harmony with the will of God.

And nothing was more important to the prophets of the Bible than justice. “But let justice well up as waters,” wrote Amos, “and righteousness as a mighty stream.” The consistent message of the prophets of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon was that God expected His people to be just, and when they failed in this, when they failed to take care of their most vulnerable populations, they were wildly out of harmony with God’s will.

As he closed his speech tonight, Anthony Ray Hinton became angry. And I’m glad he did. He told us that he was sent to prison by a “justice system” that did not care about justice. He told us that he longed to believe that he spent 30 years on death row because of an honest mistake, but he knew clearly that this was not the case. And then he said this:

Whether you believe in the death penalty or not, whether you live in Alabama or not, your government executes innocent people every year in your name. And that blood is on your hands. No matter how hard you try to wash it off, it is on your hands. So what are you going to do about it?

And that, my brothers and sisters, is how a prophet talks.


  1. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Michael, I am in total agreement with you on this. I used to be a death sentence proponent but after seeing just how screwed up the system can be, especially with eyewitness testimony and even worse with blatant racism involved all too often I cannot support it. I was hedging my bets for a while saying that only in cases of unimpeachable evidence, but now I wonder if there is such a thing.

    One thing I do know is that people from all walks of life in the U.S.A. (even Democrats and Republicans) and elect people that really believe in justice and not just convictions.


  2. Thanks, Michael, but I’m wondering what I can do. How can I change the legal system and the prejudices of other people? I’ve been trying to get Republicans to see through the lies for years, but now they’re swallowing Trump hook, line, and sinker. They really believe the coming tax cuts will go into their pockets, will not balloon the debt, will create unimaginable economic growth, and that billionaires need more money anyway so that all those high-paying jobs will trickle down. I may as well try to convince them that money grows on trees. They also believe that climate change is either a hoax or is not affected by humans. They believe that guns don’t kill people. They believe that the market is the magical answer to everything, even health care. What on earth can a person do when faced with such abject and willful ignorance?

  3. The hard part is we have a tendency to believe a prophet when it agrees with what we already believe. Otherwise we dismiss it as “not speaking as a prophet”

    Even something as obvious appearing as this (not to mention the many extra-judicial killings we turn a blind eye to) some will dismiss as “unfortunate, but the cost of having freedom”

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I saw your notice of this on FB and was hoping you would provide a report of the event, so thank you for this.

    Your point about what a prophet is is a good one. English prophet derives from Greek prophetes, from the verb prophemi. The phemi is a verb having to do with speech. The preposition pro is a little ambiguous, and although it can mean before in a temporal sense, it more commonly means to speak *out* (against injustice, as you say). Or, to quote the LDS Bible Dictionary: “In certain cases prophets predicted future events, such as the very important prophecies announcing the coming of Messiah’s kingdom; but as a rule a prophet was a forthteller rather than a foreteller.”

  5. I recall watching Governor George Ryan’s speech when he commuted to life the sentences of all 160 remaining prisoners on death row in Illinois as a follow up to the moratorium he had placed on death sentences 3 years previously. As much as he might have been a corrupt politician seeking to gain sympathy in the eyes of the public due to his own financial misdeeds, I sensed that those were the words of a prophet he spoke that day.

    His speech is worth reading to consider how irredeemable the death penalty system was in Illinois and likely in every other State.


  6. Sorry, that was a different speech he gave offering his religious perspective on the death penalty a year previous at the U of C Divinty School. Equally excellent but this was his speech I originally referenced: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/11/national/in-ryans-words-i-must-act.html

  7. Sidebottom says:

    If Hinton had been serving a life sentence he would have received little attention and had fewer legal options to overturn his conviction. He would have still been, effectively, put to death by the state. The death penalty may be a cause celebre, but we’ve got blood on our hands with or without it.

  8. jaxjensen says:

    How can we get that blood off our hands? Living up to our temple covenants. That bad news is that I look around the Wasatch Front (where I’m a new resident) and I can’t find a single person doing it. 3 different temples are in view from my front porch, and yet I can’t see a single person worthy to be cleansed from the blood and sins of this generation, including myself BTW.

    The “justice” system, being an appendage to the entire political system, is far from being Just. But if you think it is republicans solely to blame, you are likely part of the problem as well.

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