Quips and Quotes: From Death Row to a Life of Freedom

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

Editor's Note: As soon as I graduated from Notre Dame, I realized that I never took proper advantage of one of the biggest perks of being at a university: all those lectures. You may not be able to pop by DeBart 101 every week to listen to experts opine about cell biology or geopolitics, but, in this new series, we're bringing the lecture hall to you. Our editors will scour the campus for one presentation per week to attend and share with our readers, reporting back with a quote and a few highlights from the latest event in the life of the mind. 

"Today I wish I could look you in the eye and tell you that the state of Alabama made an honest mistake. Today I wish I could look you in the eye and tell you race had nothing to do with me spending 30 years in a 5-by-7. But the truth of the matter is, the state of Alabama did not make an honest mistake. And race had everything to do with me spending 30 years in a 5-by-7."

On November 13, exoneree and author Anthony Ray Hinton came to campus for “From Death Row to a Life of Freedom,” a lecture held in the McCartan Courtroom of the Notre Dame Law School. This statement set the tone for much of the presentation, which, over the course of 45 minutes, drew gasps, tears, laughter and a standing ovation from the filled-past-capacity crowd.  


Hinton was convicted in 1985 of the murders of two fast-food workers in Birmingham, Alabama. Despite a near-total lack of physical evidence and testimony that he was at work 15 miles away when the killings took place, Hinton was sentenced to death and sent to live in a five-foot-by-seven-foot cell in an Alabama prison. The case is now widely considered to be a blatant example of a racially motivated miscarriage of justice: The prosecutor was quoted after the trial as saying, with the use of racial slurs, that he hadn’t convicted the right black man, but he at least had managed to get one black man off the streets.


The Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative took interest in Hinton’s case in the 1990s and, under the leadership of attorney Bryan Stevenson, worked for nearly two decades to get the conviction overturned. In April 2015, they succeeded, and Hinton was released. 


He was brought to campus by the law school’s Exoneration Project, and his visit came shortly after the debut of his Oprah’s-Book-Club-endorsed memoir, The Sun Does Shine. After an emotionally loaded speech, Hinton lightened the mood a bit as things wound down — admitting that he’s an Auburn football fan and declaring that he hopes the Fighting Irish take on Alabama in this year’s championship game . . . and win.


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.