MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Sheila Smith remembers growing up in the 1950s in South Jersey and seeing the community and police working together.
But as the years went by, the now 65-year-old said there became a clear, tense divide between law enforcement and the community it serves.
“Especially because so many of us as black people are persecuted,” said Smith, of the Villas section of Lower Township. “Sometimes I think (the divide) is getting better, but sometimes I think it’s getting worse.”
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Smith was one of hundreds gathered Tuesday at the Performing Arts Center in the township’s high school listening to Anthony Ray Hinton, an Alabama man who was wrongfully convicted of two murders. Residents and members of state and local law enforcement gasped, cried, laughed and applauded while he told his story about spending 30 years behind bars before he was exonerated.
Since 1989, more than 2,500 people have been exonerated across the U.S. after being wrongfully convicted of crimes ranging from murder to robbery, according to the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations. Blacks made up 49% of those.
In New Jersey alone, there have been 39 exonerations during that time. Of those, 67% were black.
Even though Hinton, now an author and advocate, said he could prove he was working at the time of the murders, it didn’t matter. He said an officer who arrested him told him there were five things that were going to convict him regardless — the fact that he was black and the witness, prosecutor, judge and entire jury were white.
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“I was brought up to believe in justice,” Hinton said. He described the “pure hell” of his time in solitary confinement on death row and his ability to forgive the officials who put him there. “And all of us should seek justice in a way that is fair for everyone.”
Tuesday’s event, sponsored by the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and the Coalition for a Safe Community, aimed to rebuild relationships, officials said, through acknowledging the history of institutional racism that has, at times, existed in law enforcement.
“You can’t solve problems unless you engage with the community that you may have a bad history or relationship with,” Prosecutor Jeffrey H. Sutherland said. “So everyone’s at the same table. I’m not saying they’re coming to my table, and I’m not going to their table — we share a common table.”
Hinton said it’s important for prosecutors to host a speaker like himself because it’s an opportunity to learn from each other.
“We live in a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty as opposed to if you’re poor and innocent,” he said. “I just think when the community comes together and when the prosecutor comes together, it is a beginning to something that could be very great.”
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Events like the Hinton’s appearance are a step in the right direction, said J.C. Lore, a clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Camden, saying progressive law enforcement leaders throughout the country recognize that in order for them to be effective in combating crime, they have to build connections with the community.
“It’s a great event to have to build trust, but they also have to be in the community and on the ground and building relationships, and that takes time,” Lore said. “And it takes time for communities that have distrusted law enforcement for decades or even centuries to change that mindset.”
Attendees at the event said they were intrigued by law enforcement’s sponsorship of the event, since it seemed counter-intuitive that a prosecutor would invite someone to speak who had such a horrific experience.
“Although he’s out and free, (Hinton) still can’t get those years back,” said Vernon Bantum, 69, of Cape May Court House. “Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes, and you’re a bigger person when you can own up and fix them.”
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Smith said it shows officials are aware of the divide between law enforcement and the community and are working to fix it.
“If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be doing it,” she said. “You look around this room, you see white, black — it’s unity.”
For members of law enforcement, attending the event helped them realize how important it is to get it right, Sutherland said.
“People shouldn’t get recognized as prosecutors because they got long sentences but because they did the right thing, and sometimes it may be not charging somebody or downgrading a charge,” Sutherland said. “And when you have a person who did something wrong, to make sure you do cover all bases and they get the proper conviction and sentence. But your measuring stick shouldn’t be how long you put somebody in prison.”
At the end of his hourlong speech, Hinton called on those in the audience to stand up and fight so that everyone would have an equal chance at justice. He also asked attendees to reflect on several questions.
“What would you do if they came for you?” he asked. “What would you do if you were charged with a crime you didn’t commit? ... What would you do if you have been waiting all your life to die, and then one day, you were set free?”