From Death Row to the Virtual Classroom


Wiki Commons

Anthony Ray Hinton was exonerated in 2015 after decades on death row.

Daniel Rublin and Chelsea Berson

Picture this: you are sitting in a jail cell, awaiting your scheduled execution, as you have for decades, for a crime you did not commit. You know that you are innocent, but nobody listens to you. This nightmare was reality for Anthony Ray Hinton until he was exonerated in 2015. Since being exonerated, Mr. Hinton has spent time educating others about his experiences. He speaks publicly about his experiences and has written a book, called The Sun Does Shine, about his experiences.

On February 9, Mr. Hinton plans to answer questions from and speak with SHS students over Zoom. The event is being organized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee, which is a group of SHS faculty. 

Some students at SHS were amazed that the school was able to contact such an important public figure. “Mr. Hinton’s story is a really unique one, and I wonder how the organizers were able to get him to come speak with us,” said Zach Berman ‘23. Elizabeth Colleary, an art teacher at SHS, was a leader in organizing the event. Colleary is the advisor for the Innocence Club at SHS, and she said that she saw the film Just Mercy and “got this idea that maybe we could get Bryan Stevenson,” who is the main character of Just Mercy, to come speak to Scarsdale students. Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who has helped exonerate hundreds of death row inmates, so Colleary thought he would provide a valuable perspective to SHS students on criminal justice. Colleary wrote a letter to the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson’s organization, and received a response that said that “Bryan wasn’t available, but his project director said ‘we do have Anthony Ray Hinton, he is an exoneree, we’ve worked with him for years, he loves working with kids, and he would be happy to do it.’” 

The organizers were ecstatic when they heard that Hinton could speak with SHS students. Elizabeth Harris, a history teacher at SHS and a member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee, recounted that she felt that “students hearing from someone who’s gone through this experience could be tremendously important and impactful. Once we had that opportunity, we were really, really excited.”

Colleary mentioned that the entire English department was instantly on board with the idea of showing the film Just Mercy to every student in SHS so they could gain an increased appreciation for the event. Colleary said that “the faculty support for this event is extraordinary. The entire English department immediately said, ‘every kid in the school is watching this movie.’ To get that many teachers on board for anything is phenomenal. That is not something that often happens because we’re all doing our own thing.” Harris was also thrilled, and said that the immense faculty support for the event “tells you that this is a very special event. I know it’s a day that I’ll remember for the rest of my teaching career.” Stephen Mounkhall, an SHS English teacher, said that “All of the English teachers got on board so quickly for a couple of reasons. The quality of the movie is so high that teaching about it made sense, and teachers also saw how relevant the topics are to our lives.”

Mounkhall is currently teaching some of his English students about the book To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that shares some themes with the film Just Mercy, and Mounkhall emphasized the importance of the message of the book today. “Students might ask themselves, ‘It’s a book from 1960 about 1933, what does it have to do with my life?” said Mounkhall. “But the themes are really relevant today, and I think Bryan Stevenson helps us see that.” 

“In my years at Scarsdale I have never seen something like this,” explained Scott Goldban ’21. As the president and founder of the SHS Innocence Club, Goldban played a large role in making this once-in-a lifetime opportunity a reality for the Scarsdale community. In addition to hearing from Mr. Hinton, Goldban explained that “we’re also organizing a book sale of his book this Sunday… through Bronx River Books, and the money that we raised will be sent to the Equal Justice Initiative… With these events, we’re going to be able to reach the largest audience that we ever have, which is really exciting.”

Students and teachers are expressing excitement for the event. Isabelle Goldban ’23 said that she “was thrilled that he agreed to come speak to us. I think that this is going to be an invaluable opportunity for all of the students… we are all going to learn so much about him and about the prison system and criminal justice system and his experience in it.” Another student, Anastasia Stefanou ’21 stated that “it is going to be an amazing experience… the combination of getting to meet [Mr. Hinton] and watching [Just Mercy] will really help humanize all the people put on death row.” Harris said that “this is going to be one of those lectures that you lose track of time, because you’re so engaged in what Mr. Hinton’s gonna have to say. So I’m excited for that. And I think it’s going to be something that everyone is talking about for the next couple of days. Kids are going to be talking about it. The teachers are going to be talking about it. And that excites me.”

The organizers hope that students will learn a lot from hearing Mr. Hinton speak. “I hope the students take away some sense of commitment to wanting to contribute to the cause. And the cause is being aware of wrongful incarceration and an unjust justice system that penalizes people who do not have financial resources,” said Colleary. “We hope that the students will be inspired to want to change the world.”