“My question to the American public is: How many people need to be exonerated before we realize we do not need a death row in this country?”
This was the focus of Anthony Ray Hinton’s presentation at the UNM Law School on Thursday, where he was invited by UNM’s Innocence and Justice Project.
Hinton was on death row in Alabama for 30 years until he was exonerated in 2015.
“I was, when I was released, the 152nd person that had been exonerated from death row. Just in a year and a half, four more were exonerated,” he said. “That brings the total to 156.”
Hinton said he was released on Good Friday, and was able to attend an Easter service two days after.
“Every day the government kills in your name. Do you really want the government killing innocent people in your name?” Hinton asked. “If you don’t, then you should take a stand,”.
He said one execution of an innocent person is one too many, and that politics plays a role in where the death penalty is imposed. He accused the death penalty — which New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has recently said she wants to bring back — of installing a false sense of security.
Many anti-death penalty proponents cite the often overlooked price tag of performing an execution, saying it’s something more people should be concerned about.
“Nobody, no government, no prosecutor, can look you in the eye and tell you that you are more safe with the death penalty on the book than not,” he said.
Hinton explained there are studies which show, in states without the death penalty, the murder rate is low, as opposed to states that have the death penalty, where the murder rate is higher.
“The governors would tell you that is because we don’t use it enough. That is a political answer. We need to wise up in America and see things for what they truly are,” he said, adding that the justice system is in need of an overhaul.
Hinton said the first step to dealing with the problem is admitting there is one.
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“I’m telling you how many death row inmates have been released. I don’t even have a figure on how many regular general population people have been released,” he said. “That alone should tell you we have a problem.”
He said race and class both play a role in who gets incarcerated.
“They would have you to believe that justice is blind. But I promise you she can see. She sees what race you are. She sees what college you went to. She sees financial status. She sees what neighborhood you live in,” Hinton said. “And all of that plays a part in whether you will go to prison or not.”
He said organizations like the Innocence Project are so important, because income affects who is sent to prison.
“I sat on death row for 30 years. Not once have I ever heard (of) a rich man, or a rich person that was sat on death row. Money determines who goes and who doesn’t go,” he said.
But, Hinton said, these organizations cannot save everyone.
“We need to come in and we need to strike down the death penalty as a whole in this country,” he said.
Gordon Rahn, a research professor at the UNM Law School and director of the Innocence and Justice Project, said that Hinton’s story is one everyone should hear.
“When the wrong person goes to prison, the person who actually committed the crime is left to prey on society, which more times than not leads to even more victims,” he said. “So it’s important for the students and the public to know that we need to do everything we can to avoid these wrongful convictions in the first place.”
The project reviews and investigates post-conviction factual claims of innocence, Rahn said, which gives students an opportunity to make a difference while they are still in school.
“They’re the future of the legal community in New Mexico, whether they’re going to be criminal defense attorneys or prosecutors,” Rahn said. “In their investigations and as part of the seminar, they’re learning how these wrongful convictions happen and they’re also learning how they can be avoided in the future.”
Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.