by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
Anthony Ray Hinton’s story takes place in a dark realm that most of us in white, middle class America have little to do with and think little about. This is the realm of criminal justice, courts, and prisons – specifically Holman Prison’s Death Row in Alabama.
Hinton was convicted of murder and sentenced to death at age twenty-nine, by a sloppy and flawed system that passes for justice in the State of Alabama. That system is driven to convict someone – anyone – of a capital crime, in order to portray to the public an image of swift justice and tough punishment. That system is fraught with corruption and racism, and thus is particularly harsh on those who are black, or poor, or both. Once Hinton’s guilty verdict was reached and his death sentence passed, the State stubbornly resisted subsequent appeals based on accusations of error and misconduct at trial or discovery of new evidence. The State of Alabama showed little interest in guilt or innocence; the important thing was to convict someone and then stand by it.
Hinton was twenty-nine when he entered Holman and fifty-nine when all charges against him were finally dropped and he was set free. In the time it takes us to read The Sun Does Shine, we get from him a fair sense of what it’s like to spend thirty years on Death Row, living in bitterness and despair and occasional slim hope, riding the rollercoaster of a justice system more interested in following process than in determining actual guilt or innocence, and watching more than fifty fellow inmates marched by prison guards to “Yellow Mama,” Holman Prison’s electric chair. Hinton’s 5-by-7-foot cell was thirty feet from the execution chamber. He and other prisoners could hear and smell each electrocution.
That is how Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on Death Row. Fortunately for him, though, Bryan Stevenson, attorney and founder of Equal Justice Initiative, learned of his case and went to bat for him. Even then, it took nearly seventeen more years for Stevenson and EJI to get Hinton off Death Row.
By the way, Anthony Ray Hinton was innocent – a minor detail in the eyes of the State of Alabama. Of the fifty-plus inmates who were executed during Hinton’s tenure on Death Row, many were guilty, some were innocent. Statistically across the nation, one in ten prisoners on Death Row is innocent. Hard to justify the death penalty with an error rate of that magnitude. As of today, nineteen states and most developed countries have eliminated the death penalty. Not Alabama. Not Texas. Not my state, California, where ballot initiatives to repeal the death penalty have been narrowly defeated twice in recent years.
Anthony Ray Hinton is a good man, and stronger than most of us have ever been called upon to be. He was sustained through thirty years on death row by the love of his mother and of his best friend Lester, who visited him regularly at Holman and stood by him the entire time. He formed new friendships among other inmates condemned to die, including a white man named Henry in the next cell, who belonged to the KKK and had tortured, killed, and lynched a young black boy, because Henry’s racist father had taught him to hate. Hinton was also sustained by his friendship with Bryan Stevenson, another black man who proved to be more than just “God’s best lawyer.”
Hinton was sustained by love, hope, a sense of humor he never allowed himself to lose, and a capacity for forgiveness beyond anything I can imagine.
Upon leaving Death Row in April 2015, Anthony Ray Hinton was finally given the opportunity to begin his life at age fifty-nine. He now works part-time at Equal Justice Initiative, speaks on prison reform, and has dedicated his life to ending the death penalty.
Read The Sun Does Shine, and meet a great human being.