Civil rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson and former death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton spoke of inequities in the criminal justice system and the experience of being on death row at the Glenn Memorial Church on Oct. 26.
About 750 people attended the event, which was organized by the Emory Integrity Project (EIP) and the Office of the Provost as a part of the EIP’s Common Reading Program.
Hinton, who was convicted for killing two restaurant managers in separate armed robberies and sentenced to death, was released in 2015 after 30 years on death row.
Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, accepted Hinton as a client and took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in 2014 that his right to a fair trial was violated.
Associate Professor of Political Science Andra Gillespie moderated the conversation between the two friends. Hinton spoke about his arrest, his experience on death row, meeting Stevenson in prison and how he adapted to society after he was freed. Upon his release, Hinton said he was fascinated by GPS devices and credit cards.
“Waking up with a death sentence over your head for 29 years is more than a person should have to take,” Hinton said when talking about his experience in prison
Stevenson added that the modern public is “too subtle” when speaking about the civil rights movement.
“[We] talk about it like it was a three-day carnival,” Stevenson said. He said it is important to educate people about the history of racial inequality in the United States.
Stevenson praised how Germany has markers at the homes of families abducted during the Holocaust and the country’s attempts to “change the narrative.” He said that in the U.S., “people get nervous when talking about race,” which is something he believes must change.
Socioeconomic status and race can have an unjust influence on people’s outcomes in the criminal justice system, Hinton and Stevenson said.
“We have a system that treats you better when you are rich and guilty than when you are poor and innocent,” Stevenson said, referencing Hinton’s case. “One in three black kids is expected to be in jail in his lifetime, and for Latinos it’s one in six, but we don’t talk about that.”
Hinton and Stevenson concluded the discussion by encouraging the audience to vote in the upcoming elections. Hinton said that one of the first things he did upon his release was to register to vote again.
“If you want to fix the system, go vote and put the right people in power,” Hinton said.
In her opening remarks, University President Claire E. Sterk said that “one of the aspects the Emory community is very focused on is the fact that we are not afraid to engage in … difficult conversation.”
“I believe that such conversations at the end of the day give us new insights,” Sterk said. “They can change us, change society and in many ways bring us closer together and teach us to be more compassionate.”
Jane Wang (22C) said Hinton’s story reaffirmed her desires to pursue a legal career.
“These are the kinds of stories that make me want to be a lawyer,” Wang said.
Lucy Mangalapalli (22C) said Hinton’s story was powerful but sadly representative of the criminal justice system.
Wendy Wang (22C) called the event “inspiring and heartwarming.”