But more so than the evidence, I have never had as strong a feeling in trying any other case that the defendant just radiated guilt and pure evil as much as in the Hinton trial.
—Prosecutor Bob McGregor
There’s no way to know the exact second your life changes forever. You can only begin to know that moment by looking in the rearview mirror. And trust me when I tell you that you never, ever see it coming. Did my life change forever the day I was arrested? Or did the life-changing moment happen even earlier? Was that day just the culmination of a whole series of fateful moments, poor choices, and bad luck? Or was the course of my life determined by being black and poor and growing up in a South that didn’t always care to be civil in the wake of civil rights? It’s hard to say. When you are forced to live out your life in a room the size of a bathroom—a room that’s five feet wide by seven feet long—you have plenty of time to replay the moments of your life. To imagine what might have happened if you had run when they came chasing you. Or if you had gotten that baseball scholarship. Or married that girl when you had the chance. We all do it. Replay the horrific moments of our lives and reimagine them by going left instead of right, being this person instead of that person, making different choices. You don’t have to be locked up to occupy your mind and your days trying to rewrite a painful past or undo a terrible tragedy or make right a horrible wrong. But pain and tragedy and injustice happen—they happen to us all. I’d like to believe it’s what you choose to do after such an experience that matters the most—that truly changes your life forever.
I’d really like to believe that.
Jefferson County Jail, December 10, 1986
My mom sat on the other side of the glass wall that separated us, looking out of place in her ivory gloves, green-and-blue flowered dress, and her wide blue hat rimmed in white lace. She always dressed for jail like she was going to church. But a nice outfit and impeccable manners have always been used as weapons in the South. And the bigger her hat, the more she meant business. That woman wore hats taller than the pope’s. Looking at my mama in this visiting room, you would hardly guess in her own Southern way she was armed to the teeth and ready for battle. During the trial and even on visiting days, she looked a bit dazed and bewildered by it all. She had been like that ever since my arrest a year and a half ago. Lester said he thought she was still in shock. Lester Bailey and I have been friends since he was four years old and our mothers told us to go out and play together. I was six then and far too old to play with a four-year-old. But even though I had tried to lose him that first day, he stuck with me. Twenty-three years later, he was still sticking with me.
During every visit, it was as if my mom couldn’t understand why I was still in jail. Three months earlier, I had been found guilty of robbing and murdering two people. Three months since twelve people decided I was no longer of value and this world would somehow be a better place if I weren’t in it. Their recommendation was that I be murdered. Oh, the sanitized way of saying it is “sentenced to death.” But let’s call it what it is. They wanted to murder me because I had murdered.
Only they had the wrong guy.
I was working the night shift in a locked warehouse when the manager at a Quincy’s restaurant fifteen miles away was abducted, robbed, and shot. I was mistakenly identified. The police claimed an old .38 caliber pistol owned by my mother was the murder weapon. The State of Alabama claimed this gun was not only used in the Quincy’s robbery and attempted murder but also two other murders in the area where restaurant managers had been robbed at closing time, forced into coolers, and then murdered. That old gun my mom owned, I don’t think it had been used in twenty-five years. Maybe longer. I had never even been in a fight, but now, I was not only a killer but the kind of cold-blooded killer that would hold a gun to your head and pull the trigger for a few hundred bucks and then just go about my business like it was nothing.
God knows my mama didn’t raise no killer. And during those months of waiting for the official sentencing from the judge, her demeanor hadn’t changed from before I was convicted. Did she know I was one court date away from the death chamber? We didn’t speak on it, and truly I wasn’t sure if she was pretending on my account, or I was pretending on her account, or we were both just so caught up in this nightmare that neither of us really knew how to face what had happened.
“When are you coming home, baby? When are they going to let you come home?”
I looked at Lester, who stood behind her, one hand resting on her left shoulder while she held the phone up to her right ear. He usually came alone to see me, and my mom came with my sister or the neighbor. Every week, Lester would be the first in line on visiting day, stopping in on his way to work to say hello and put some money on my books so I had the essentials. He had done that for the last year and a half, like clockwork every single week. He was the first one there no matter what. He really was the best, best friend a guy could have.
Lester looked back at me and shrugged and then shook his head a little. My mom always asked when “they” were going to let me come home. I was the baby of the family—her baby. Up until my arrest, we were together every day. We went to church together. Ate our meals together. Laughed together. Prayed together. She was my absolute everything, and I was hers. I couldn’t think of any big moment in my life when my mom wasn’t right there by my side, cheering me on. Every baseball game. Before exams and school dances. Graduation. When I got home from work in the coal mine, she was always there waiting to hug me no matter how dirty I was. When I went to my first day of work at the furniture store, she was up early to make me breakfast and pack me a lunch. And she was there for every day of my trial. Smiling up at everyone in that courtroom in her best dress with the kind of love that can just break a man’s heart into a million pieces. She believed in me—always had, always would. Even now. Even though a jury had found me guilty, she still believed in me. I could feel the lump form in my throat and my eyes start to sting. She and Lester were probably the only people in the world who knew what I knew: I was innocent. They didn’t care that the press made me out to be some kind of monster. The fact that these two people never doubted me for a second—well, let’s just say I hung on to that like my life depended on it. But even if I were guilty, even if I had murdered those two people in cold blood for a little cash, my mom and Lester would have still loved me and believed in me. They would have still been right where they were. What does a man do with a love like that? What does a man do?
I looked down until I could get control. I had tried my best to keep my feelings and emotions in check throughout the trial because I didn’t want to upset my mom. I didn’t want her to see me cry. I didn’t want her to feel my fear or my pain. My mom had always tried to protect me, to take away my pain. But this pain was too much for even a mother’s love to contain. I couldn’t do that to her. I wouldn’t do that no matter how hard they pushed me. It was all I had left to give.
After a few moments, I looked back up and smiled at my mom. Then Lester and I locked eyes once more.
He shook his head again.
When you’ve known a guy as long as I have known Lester, you have a kind of unspoken language. I had asked him to not let anyone talk to my mom about my sentencing. My sister had wanted to sit her down and make her understand that they could put me to death and that I was never coming home. Make her face it and deal with it. Lester put a stop to all that talk. I would come home someday. God knew it, and I knew it. I didn’t want my mom to lose her hope. There’s no sadder place to be in this world than a place where there’s no hope.
When Lester came to visit alone, he and I could talk freely—well, as freely as two guys can talk when their every word is being recorded. We had a sort of code. But since my conviction, it didn’t seem to matter much anymore. Time was running out, so we had talked about my options openly.
I put my hand up on the thick glass that separated me from my mom, and I readjusted the phone’s handset against my ear. She leaned forward and stretched her arm out so that her hand was pressed against the other side of the wall that separated us.
“Soon, Mama,” I said. “They’re working on it. I plan to be home soon.”
I had a plan. Lester knew it. I knew it. God knew it. And that was all that mattered. Now that I had blocked out all the sadness, I could feel the anger rising up through me and fighting to get out. It had come in waves ever since my conviction. Tonight I would pray again. Pray for the truth. Pray for the victims. Pray for my mom and for Lester. And I would pray that the nightmare I had been living for almost two years would end somehow. There was no question how my sentencing would turn out, but I would still pray for a miracle and try not to criticize it if the miracle didn’t look like I expected.
It’s what my mama had always taught me.