Wanted: Termites

Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Commanding a spellbound crowd on the Boston College Chestnut Hill Campus (where undergraduate classes are), Mr. Hinton took students, faculty, and members of the public through three decades of despair, faith, fury, friendship, and humor. He was often emotional, always passionate, and amazingly graceful. For nearly an hour and a half, it was impossible to think of anything but spending thirty years in a five by seven cell.

Knowing there is no substitute for the real thing, I won’t bother trying to summarize Mr. Hinton’s speech or his journey. Those interested should read his book, “The Sun Does Shine.”

This semester in particular has given me the chance to reflect on the system which sent Mr. Hinton to Holman Correctional Facility. Both Criminal Law and Restorative Justice have reacquainted me with familiar texts such as “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, “A New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and “Locked In” by James Pfaff. I’ve likewise been introduced to new leaders, including Kalief Browder and Angela Davis.

These thinkers have given us all thousands of pages of wisdom and knowledge from which we can begin to imagine a better criminal justice system. But no one has put the issues in as stark human terms as Mr. Hinton did on Wednesday night. Among his rhetorical questions, a series of challenges issued to the audience, and honest pleas to a younger generation, Mr Hinton reminded me of something.

“The State of Alabama was going to execute me in your name.”

My name.

This summer, I’ll have the privilege to work on capital appeals cases in Louisiana. I can’t fake my competence or my confidence, so I’ll just say I’m grateful to have the chance to see yet another piece of “justice” in the United States. I’m not the first BC Law student to make the trek to New Orleans for ten humid weeks, and hopefully I will be yet another who returns from the Capital Appeals Project with a firmer foundation and a fire to continue the work.

Knowing I’m headed back down South, I’ve pondered the relationship between Mr. Hinton, an innocent man, and the people I will be serving. Though I don’t believe an innocent person should spend a single day in jail, I feel comfortable making that same statement about hundreds of the factually “guilty” clients I’ve worked for. After all, indigent defense work is not innocence work. It is human dignity work and protection of the process work.

Thirty innocent years on death row is especially horrifying. But the ideal is not merely a system which empathizes with the innocent. The ideal is a system which recognizes the punishment we inflict on others as reflection of who we are.

The link, then, is Mr. Hinton’s reminder that I share responsibility for a system designed to ruin peoples’ lives. My thoughts and feelings about the criminal justice system do not serve as absolution.

I had the chance this semester to spend an afternoon with a group of men inside Norfolk Prison as a participant in a restorative justice circle. While the story of that day isn’t for this blog, one piece belongs to all of us. As we left the prison for this campus, one of the men asked us to remember that the edifice of mass incarceration is vast. We can’t change it in an afternoon, a semester, a summer. Instead, we can act as termites, working away, chipping the facade, creating our tunnels and passageways and working in tandem for as long as it takes, until we bring the whole thing down.

“The State of Alabama was going to execute me in your name.”

Brett Gannon is a 1L at BC Law and a new Impact blogger. He welcomes feedback at gannonbd@bc.edu.

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