The Sun Does Shine

This book, by Anthony Ray Hinton, is an incredible true account of a man accused of and found guilty of murder, who goes to Alabama’s Death Row for 25+ years, and is ultimately exonerated as innocent. This first-person narrative about his experience is harrowing, heart-breaking, and ultimately uplifting after he is released from improper bondage for almost 30 years of his life. It paints the story of a terribly broken justice system, where judges are rewarded more for sending people to the death chamber than for finding justice; a law enforcement system that has significant racial biases built into it; and a community of Americans who need somebody blamed for murders, even if that person is innocent. It frustrated me and made me consider a change in my life to help fix our broken justice system. It’s an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to anybody.

The book starts with his trial, which makes sense for setting the context. There were lots of flashing red lights at his trial — an all-white jury, incorporating two other murders to the one he was accused of, poor evidence gathering by the police, a non-submitted polygraph, and a biased judge. Then Hinton goes back and tells about his high school, college, and post-college years, when he made some mistakes, but to which he owned up. The next many chapters, then, describe his time in prison — he spent the first three years on death row silent — and how he eventually grew to appreciate those around him. He began using his mind, and talked about how they started a book club, how they would argue about books from cell to cell without being able to see anybody. He became friendly with many of the inmates, and pondered how a system could murder people, how that was fair, especially when he was innocent. This part of the book is a very strong argument against the death penalty; nobody would want to be judged in their life for the actions on their worst day, and especially not those for whom this punishment was undeserved. He was strong in his faith, other than that silent period, and frequently referred to his faith and God for giving him the strength to accept his predicament and to forgive those who had wrongfully imprisoned him. Granted, he questioned it at times, as anybody with faith does, but it was a strong rock for him to anchor his life and mind upon.

At one point he befriends a white guy named Henry, and they get along and participate in the book club together. He later finds out that Henry is on Death Row because he had murdered a black boy as part of the KKK. Hinton asks him about it, and it turns out that Henry has had a change of heart, and now fully realizes the awfulness of his actions. His parents raised him to hate black people, he says, but now he knows that is wrong. Hinton sees him as a reformed man, one who during a visit actually called Hinton over to tell his parents (who are still white supremacists) that Hinton is his best friend. They avoid eye contact and appear horrified. And yet, Henry is still sent to “Yellow Mama” to die, one of 54 prisoners executed while Hinton was on death row.

At some point, Hinton got in touch with Bryan Stephenson, who started the Equal Justice Initiative, and argued cases for those on Death Row. Over a period of maybe ten years, they fought the charges up and down the Alabama court system, and finally turned to the US Supreme Court in 2013. At that time, the court released a unanimous ruling that not only should a lower court review the ruling, but that it should be tossed completely and a new trial should go forward. Based on EJI’s work over those years, it became clear that Hinton was innocent, and the prosecutor decided to drop all charges against him. He walked free soon after, and has since had the opportunity to tell his story to many communities.

The audiobook aroused a tremendous anger in me — anger at the system, anger at social injustice, and anger at the fact that it took 30 years to release this man back into society, after having taken the most productive years of his life away. This, combined with Rise of the Warrior Cop and The Chickenshit Club, as well as Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy, have me extremely cynical about our modern criminal justice system. My experience on a jury told me that a jury’s decision can be fickle, and the gross misdeeds of our courts make me even more frustrated. I don’t know how or where, but I hope in the coming years, I and we as a society can start to correct some of these egregious problems to continue help forming a more perfect union.