By Jacob Rubin, Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey 2016 Participant
“I wish I could tell you that the state of Alabama made a mistake. I wish…”
His voice cracked. Choked up with emotion, he put his right hand over his eyes that now welled up with tears.
“But I am willing to die for something I didn’t do.”
My eyes began watering with his.
Anthony Ray Hinton, called “Ray” by friends and family, was on death row from age 29 to 59. Ray spent the majority of his life imprisoned. Alive because of a string of last minute appeals, Ray was released April 3, 2015, only after U.S. Supreme Court intervention. Eighteen Alabama judges denied the appeals, yet the highest court in the land unanimously freed him.
Ray’s story gave me the dose of reality I needed to spur my motivation to act. I initially joined the URJ Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey to experience the injustice I see on my Facebook feed first-hand. I joined to note the progress made and see the change still needed. Now, listening to Ray, I learned the ground we need to cover as a society to ensure fairness in our current judicial system.
Ray’s case was picked up by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization started in 1989 to ensure equality in the criminal justice system. The EJI provides counsel and litigation services to combat faults in the Alabama court system. Among these include presumption of guilt, inadequate counsel, the influence of politics, and the disproportionate application of harsher sentences on minorities. Of 192 people on Alabama’s death row today, 65% are black males; 80% of them have been convicted of harming a white victim.
This current system of racial inequality is the culmination of a hierarchy developed to justify slavery. The EJI suggests that slavery never ended, but rather evolved into an era of mass incarceration; Ray’s case epitomizes this new era. From Ray’s perspective, the KKK took off the white robe and put on the black robe. I learned that essentially, the justice system is comfortable sentencing a man to death based on race.
While, like Ray, I wish that the problems in the criminal justice system are mistakes, I recognize the systematic and purposeful racial discrimination imposed. My Mitzvah Corps journey, like Ray’s story, is bringing my Facebook feed to life. It is equipping me with the knowledge of current social and political injustices. My eyes are opened wide and I know the knowledge I am gaining in these two weeks will be used to enact social change.