I heard about The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton while listening to a podcast that was interviewing him, and I found his good humour infectious and his story interesting, so I added his book to my to read list because it seemed like a story worth knowing. I have a bit of a passion for social justice, and am a bit of a sucker for true crime stories (the real life version of horror stories in a way, and don’t worry horror buddies, that special dark place in my heart will always lurk in that dim corner, mwahahaha- er…*ahem*). After completing the book, I was not disappointed.
I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting, but the story really resonated with me. It gives you a glimpse into life on death row in Alabama (which as of October 2020 had the 4th highest number of people on death row in the US at 170) which was, and wasn’t, how I pictured it would be. I think this was something I hadn’t really thought of much before, but Anthony describes a lonely, regretful, and claustrophobic space with men sitting in cells the size of bathrooms where you can’t see other inmates but can hear them when they cry in the night. The routine for the day allows only a brief respite outside and breakfasts at 3am and dinner at 2pm, with lunch slated in between, of meals that are tasteless and identical. His cell was a short distance from the electric chair, so every person who was on his last walk would pass by, and the smell that remained after would permeate the air.
You may think that this is just. This is a place for evil people, after all. Isn’t this what they deserve? Perhaps even this is too good for the likes of them? You might be right. However, the striking part is that this book is a true story of a man who was framed for murders he did not commit, by evidence that was clearly not legit, and as you read the book the snowballing of lies and manipulations by the people in charge of the legal system is harrowing. You might believe that this is just a blip, a single whoopsie by the good people we trust to handle such things involved in crime and punishment. Yet it also makes me wonder, how do we know that this isn’t the norm, or that this isn’t happening more often then we think? Why do we sometimes hold law enforcement to this knight in shining armor standard? And why is questioning those of this industry and asking for more transparency something that seems to get so much pushback? And the worst part of all, why is it when a wrong is found, so much time seems to be spent trying to hide it?
I’m not saying that this kind of story is the norm, as I’m sure there are a lot of bad people in prison (regardless that the in house mantra of its less than reliable residents is “I didn’t do it.”) but I have to admit that reading something like this makes me question my own assumptions a bit. Would we say that one innocent man suffering through decades of punishment is just the price we pay for justice to work for all the others? Is it justice if this is happening to more than one person, or more than dozens? What about the people who are innocent and are put to death? A study from Michigan states that up to 4% of death row inmates likely are innocent, which would mean in just Alabama about 7 people on death row as of last year shouldn’t be there. Even though the number is low, it’s a bit unsettling. More unsettling is that as of October of 2020 there were 2553 people on death row in the US, which pops that number up to 102 innocents in the queue waiting for death.
I guess you could argue that even if 102 people are innocent, that is still 2451 people who are not, so maybe that average is ok. Perhaps these people were criminally adjacent to the problem anyway, which is to say they were close enough to get caught in the crosshairs, and probably had done some sketchy things at some point in order to come under suspicion, which is what happened in Ray’s case. But how ethical is it that past transgressions be brought up to be used in current issues? Using that as a frame of reference seems to equate to labeling them as bad people, and being bad means…well, then they probably did it (or got away with something at some point, so deserve punishment of some kind). Although some might think that’s an ok way to justify it, it seems an abhorrent justification. Imagine your life, or the life of someone you love, being kidnapped for that belief in probably.
Other things to consider is that approximately 70% of this population has less than a high school diploma and 10% have mental health issues. Also troubling is the correlation between wealth and incarceration. When you get sucked into the system, not being able to afford adequate representation is devastating. Movies and TV seem to assume that everyone can afford all the fancy tests required to provide a defense, or that perhaps someone else foots the bill since the issue of how things are paid for doesn’t always come up, but the cost of defending yourself is not cheap – skewing justice for the innocent without wealth and letting free the guilty with money to burn. Anthony’s appointed lawyer was complicit, disinterested, and had a tiny budget allotment to hire a ballistics expert, so the one he found was easily laughed out of court as he was legally blind. Interesting that it was a review of the ballistics that freed him 30 years later, when a qualified expert was used. Money shouldn’t be a factor here, but the truth seems to be that those who have it get better chances and more opportunities for justice than those who don’t.
Soapbox preaching about the legal system aside, (whew, sorry – or am I? ha ha – but you may have noticed that this book sent me down the internet research rabbit hole!) this book humanizes this experience and shows how one man chose to think and act during his years on death row. It goes in dark places, but it also, brilliantly, unfailingly seeks the light. There is hope here. There is redemption. There is truth, and things to think about. This is a book worth reading.
Have you read a book like this that you can recommend? Have any thoughts, experiences or insights? Feel free to tell me about them below!
Interested in more? Check out these:
- The Equal Justice Initiative website – the group that helped Anthony Ray to justice.
- Trailer for the movie Just Mercy with Jamie Foxx (playing Walter McMillian, another death row inmate), which follows defense attorney Bryan Stevenson‘s work in the Alabama justice system, and where O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays Anthony Ray Hinton.
Anthony Ray Hinton – “What would you do?” clip & Oprah interview: