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For any writer, being selected for Oprah’s book club is a big honor. For Anthony Ray Hinton, a man who spent decades on death row for crimes he didn’t commit, it’s an honor he never expected to receive.
Hinton’s memoir, “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row,” is Oprah’s latest book club selection.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Hinton called the news the second biggest surprise of his life.
The actual biggest surprise of his life?
“Being charged with a crime I didn't commit,” Hinton said.
Here are five things to know about the man whose memoir captured Oprah’s attention and whose tragic yet triumphant story is shedding light on the need for reform within the criminal justice system.
1. There were no eyewitnesses or fingerprints.
At the age of 29, Hinton was convicted of the murders of two fast food restaurant workers who were killed during two separate armed robberies in Birmingham, Alabama in 1985, The Marshall Project reports. There were no eyewitnesses linking Hinton to the crimes and Hinton’s fingerprints were not found at either of the crime scenes.
Hinton also passed a polygraph test and had an alibi accounting for his time during the murders, Slate pointed out. Nevertheless, prosecutors maintained that Hinton had used his mother’s gun to commit the killings, and a judge agreed. He was sentenced to death.
2. After his defense counsel dropped the ball — big time — he got Bryan Stevenson.
Many say Hinton’s counsel didn’t give him an adequate defense.
In a moving piece for The Guardian titled “I Spent 28 Years On Death Row,” Hinton recalled seeing his defense counsel only three times in the two years he awaited trial.
When he told his appointed lawyer that he was innocent, the man reportedly responded, “All of y’all always say you didn’t do something.”
Luckily for Hinton, his next attorney — Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy”— was a much better fit, and helped him with his years-long appeal efforts.
3. He was exonerated after 30 years.
After spending three decades incarcerated, Hinton was exonerated in 2015 at the age of 58. The Supreme Court ruled the year before that Hinton was deserving of a retrial on the grounds that his original counsel was constitutionally negligent, according to the American Bar Association. Hinton’s original defense attorney operated under the mistaken belief that he could only use $1,000 to hire an expert witness, and ended up with someone who reportedly had only one eye and could not see through the microscope lens properly, The Washington Post reports.
During a retrial, three different experts failed to link the bullets used in the murders to Hinton’s mother’s gun, and Hinton was freed, The Post reports.
“All they had to do was to test the gun, but when you think you're high and mighty and you're above the law, you don't have to answer to nobody,” Hinton told reporters, according to CNN.
4. He's still jittery about being free.
Adjusting to life on the outside after decades on death row — where he would spend around 23 hours a day alone in his cell — hasn’t been an easy process for Hinton. Even seemingly mundane things, like taking a trip to the mall, filled Hinton with anxiety at first.
“I’ve been to the mall and I’m just getting comfortable with people just walking, so many people behind me and in front of me, because you don't have that in there,” he told The Marshall Project shortly after his release.
“I don’t know who’s walking behind me, who’s that in front of me or who’s beside me. It makes me a little nervous.”
5. Some still doubt his innocence.
While Hinton’s story seems, to many, to be one of justice and hope, not all are convinced that the state cruelly convicted an innocent man.
“The fact that thirty years later different ballistic experts are unable to say conclusively that this gun fired the fatal shots, without the benefit of the original test fired projectiles used by the original examiners, is not evidence of innocence,” Assistant Attorney General James Houts wrote in a letter to an Alabama legislative committee last year, AL.com reports.
The committee in question is in charge of deciding whether or not Hinton will be financially compensated to the tune of $1.5 million. Citing claims that he hasn’t proved his innocence, the state of Alabama is resisting Hinton’s compensation claims, The Guardian reported earlier this year. He has yet to be compensated at all.
6. The title of his book has special meaning.
Among Hinton’s first words after being released from prison? “The sun does shine,” according to AL.com.
[Photo: St. Martin's Press (L). Oprah Winfrey (R) attends The Robin Hood Foundation's 2018 benefit at Jacob Javitz Center on May 14, 2018 in New York City. By Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Robin Hood]