But then, as he began his fourth year of incarceration, “I woke up to the sound of a grown man crying”, he recalls. “Another prisoner had just got word that his mother had passed, and at that moment I began to put life in perspective. My mother was still alive, but more importantly, I was still alive. So I began to learn to cope.” He began reading and even set up a prison book club.
But when Buhlar died in 2002, he was blindsided by grief. “There was no hope. There was no love. There was nothing left inside me to keep me going. I didn’t want to live. I didn’t deserve to live. I didn’t have the strength to live. I was ready to go,” he says. He considered hanging himself with his bedsheet, but heard his mother’s voice telling him he must “prove to them that my baby is no killer”.
Eventually, after 28 years in prison, Hinton did just that, with the help of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, whose work has now been celebrated in the film, Just Mercy, which is set for release this month. Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer, founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights organisation in Montgomery, Alabama, that provides legal representation for poor prisoners and those who may have been wrongly convicted or denied a fair trial.
The location is telling: Montgomery has a civil rights footprint wholly disproportionate to its size. It was here, on December 1, 1955, that 41-year-old department store seamstress Rosa Parks refused the demands of a bus driver to give up her seat in the “coloured section” to a white passenger, sparking the year-long Montgomery bus boycott and, eventually, the 1956 Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
Six years later, the Freedom Riders – civil rights protesters challenging the lingering, defiant segregation on public transport in the southern states – were attacked by a white mob, who beat them with baseball bats and iron pipes while local police officers watched. It was also here, on March 25, 1965, that 25,000 people, led by Dr Martin Luther King, completed the 87-kilometre march from Selma, calling for an end to the suppression of black voting rights.
Now, 55 years later, Montgomery has other more ignominious claims: it is the capital of a state with a disproportionate number of people on death row – the highest per capita in the US – a disproportionate number of whom are African American. Alabama is also the only state in the union that provides no legal assistance to its death-row prisoners.
When Stevenson took up Hinton’s case more than a decade into his incarceration, he immediately ordered new ballistics tests by three experts, including the FBI’s former chief of firearms testing, which showed the bullets in one of the shootings came from a different gun, and the others could not be matched to Hinton’s mother’s gun. Yet the Alabama courts persistently refused to overturn his conviction or grant a new trial.
It took Stevenson and his team 16 years to have Hinton’s sentence overturned and all charges dropped, a colossal prevarication on the part of the state courts, which Hinton – who served 28 years in solitary confinement on death row – believes was entirely racially motivated. Statistics from the EJI show that one in every three African-American boys born in the US will likely serve time in prison.
“In America, you are guilty the moment you are born black and male,” Hinton says. “If you’re poor and you’re black, the chance of you getting true justice is slim to none. Had it not been for God putting Bryan Stevenson in my life, I would have been executed. But there’s just not enough Bryan Stevenson to go around.”
When 60-year-old Stevenson began his work in the late 1980s, no death-row case had ever been overturned in Alabama. To date, Stevenson has saved more than 125 prisoners from the gallows and argued six times in front of the US Supreme Court, winning landmark rulings, including a 2005 ban on the death penalty for anyone convicted under the age of 18.
In 2012, he gave a TED talk which has been watched almost 6 million times, and in 2014 he released Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a memoir of his fight to overturn miscarriages of justice for poor, black and marginalised defendants. The book, which quickly became a New York Times bestseller, forms the basis of the film, which stars Michael B. Jordan as the youthful advocate.
A young Hinton, played by O’Shea Jackson jnr, features in the film, but the story focuses largely on another case early in Stevenson’s career, that of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx. McMillian, a black pulpwood worker, was convicted – as a result of a combination of police coercion and perjury – and sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. Thanks to Stevenson’s efforts, McMillian was exonerated in 1993; he died in 2013.
“Here was a case involving a black man, wrongly accused of killing a white woman, in the very community where Harper Lee grew up and wrote To Kill A Mockingbird [in which a black man is falsely convicted of raping a white woman],” notes Stevenson, when we meet at the EJI’s Montgomery offices, where 28 lawyers are now employed. He is handsome, charismatic and improbably youthful-looking.
“There’s probably no American novel more beloved, and there’s the irony for me,” he says. “We celebrate this fictional account of what happened in that community, and yet we still are indifferent to the real-life manifestation of these problems.”
Stevenson grew up in Delaware, the third child of a father who worked in a food-processing plant and a mother who worked as a bookkeeper. His father, Howard, could not attend high school in the 1940s because, under segregation, there were no high schools for black students in his county. Stevenson himself is, he says, “a product of Brown v Board of Education”, the landmark 1954 ruling that forced the end of segregated schools, though not without violent protest from the white factions who opposed it.
“I think that’s what made me want to be a lawyer,” Stevenson says. “The power that these lawyers had to get communities to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
At his own mixed high school in the 1970s, Stevenson played baseball and soccer, won public speaking competitions and became president of the student body. After a degree in philosophy at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, he scored a place at Harvard Law School, where, as part of a class on race and poverty, he worked for the Southern Centre for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, which represents death-row prisoners. He had found his calling.
There is something monastic about Stevenson. He has never married and his brother, Howard jnr, named his first son Bryan in part because he suspected he might not have a family of his own. “It wasn’t my goal to be in a space like this,” he admits. “But I haven’t felt any void, and it has never seemed like a sacrifice. I have these rich relationships with people I love and care deeply about.”
He and McMillian became firm friends. “He actually came and lived with me for a while – we were very close,” Stevenson says.
Since his own release four years ago, Hinton has found liberty to have its challenges as well as its joys. “The world has completely moved on and passed me by,” he says. Ipads, smartphones and self-service airport check-ins leave him feeling confused. “I would go home and cry because I didn’t know how to swipe a credit card the right way. And I didn’t want to say that the reason I didn’t know was because I had been locked up for 28 years.”
Hinton has used his time, both inside and since his release, profitably, turning his experiences into a memoir of his own. The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row was published last year; Oprah Winfrey has bought the rights and is turning Hinton’s story into a film.
While high-profile courtroom battles on behalf of prisoners such as McMillian and Hinton are what have brought Stevenson to public prominence, it is not the extent of his mission. He is also the architect of two of the most profound contributions to Montgomery’s — and America’s — contemporary cultural landscape: The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both of which opened in April 2018. The former is a powerful collection of first-person accounts of enslavement, oppression, racial terror, incarceration and police violence across generations. The latter is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to those terrorised by lynching, the public torture of African Americans used as a tool of oppression between the Civil War and World War II.
On a 2½-hectare site overlooking the city, the memorial features more than 800 life-sized steel figures symbolising the thousands of lynchings in which African Americans were shot, hanged, burned or mutilated, often without even the allegation of a criminal offence and always without trial. Their “crimes” are listed: walking past a window while a white woman was inside bathing, not allowing a white man to win a fight, writing a note to a white woman, and voting. And the memorial lays out its position baldly: “Lynchings in America were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes. Lynchings were targeted racial violence perpetrated to uphold an unjust social order. Lynchings were terrorism.”
Back in Stevenson’s offices, he draws a line from slavery, segregation and lynching to the mass incarceration and wrongful convictions he is fighting today. “We have this long history of demonising people of colour, presuming them guilty or dangerous and that was shaped during slavery,” he says. “In that respect, slavery doesn’t end, it just evolves. If we’re not willing to respond to the injustice of the wrongful convictions and mass incarceration with these very racialised features, then we can’t differentiate what we’re doing today from what we did during the time of lynching, or legal segregation or even what we did during the time of slavery.”
But he does see progress. “The trend is very much in the direction of abolition,” he says of capital punishment. Twenty states, plus Washington DC, have abolished the death penalty and California, which accounts for 20 per cent of the US total with more than 750 prisoners on death row, last year declared a moratorium on executions. And though he cannot predict a timeframe, Stevenson does firmly believe that nationwide abolition of the death penalty will come. “It has to,” he says, nodding. “The weight of it is too much to continue to carry.”
Just Mercy opens on January 23.