A Review and Comparison of The Sun Does Shine
The Sun Does Shine, by Anthony Ray Hinton and Lara Love, is a story about the impact of institutionalized racism and classism in the criminal justice system. Anthony Ray Hinton, “Ray” to his friends, grew up in Praco, Alabama, during the 1960s and 1970s when Birmingham earned the nickname “Bombingham” and black families hid in their bathtubs fearful a bomb would be thrown through their windows. Though Ray could have played baseball in college, without a scholarship it was not an option any more than leaving his mama alone. After high school he worked in the Praco shale mine for five years before it closed. After Ray’s first trouble with the law, which involved a stolen car and 18 months in prison, he vowed never to “step a foot wrong again”.
A few years later, while Ray worked the nightshift at Bruno’s warehouse two restaurant managers were robbed and killed. Despite having a solid alibi of working in a locked compound, Ray is arrested and charged with capital murder. Police detectives seized a pistol from his mother’s house and claim it is the murder weapon. Ray is ultimately convicted of the murders and sentenced to death without any evidence connecting him to the crimes.
Alabama’s death row is hell on earth and Ray struggles with the rage and anger of being an innocent man sentenced to death. For three years he speaks only to his mother and friends at visits, maintaining complete silence on death row. He discovers, by listening to other prisoners talk, that Alabama death row defendants do not receive state-funded legal representation beyond an initial appeal. After that defendants must provide their own counsel, which most cannot because they are indigent. Ray’s first lesson in the criminal justice system is that capital punishment means those without capital get punished. Equal justice in America costs money.
Fortunately Ray and the other son death row have Bryan Stevenson, founded of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), who knows which prisoner needs legal representation and where they are in the appellate process. Ray is assigned an attorney, thus beginning the long battle of his capital appeals. It is not until Bryan Stevenson himself represents Ray that he feels a true sense of hope. However, proving one’s innocence is not easy when you are presumed guilty and sentenced to death. Sometimes it takes decades; some innocents are executed before they can prove their case.
Along the marathon journey to save his life and win freedom Ray concludes despair and hatred, like hope, faith, love and compassion, are choices. He chooses compassion, breaking his silence to comfort a man whose mother died, sharing brief moments of laughter with others on death row, and even initiating a book club to give guys something more to read than a Bible. The State could steal his freedom and even kill him, but they could not take away his humanity or sense of humor. Ray befriends a number of people on death row, most notably Henry Hays, the first white man Alabama sentenced to death for lynching a young black man. Ray believed, “ . . when you try to survive moment to moment, there wasn’t the luxury of judgement” (p. 152). They were all human beings facing death and, despite their pasts, are more than the worst things they have ever done.
Bryan Stevenson submits a “Writ of Cert” to the US Supreme Court in a last ditch effort to prove Ray’s innocence and it works, they unanimously rule to overturn his sentence and conviction. After doing so the State drops all charges and releases Ray. Finally, freed from the darkness of death row, the sun does shine for Anthony Ray Hinton.
As someone who has lived on North Carolina’s death row for the last twenty years I thought The Sun Does Shine an accurate, well written account of the mental torment inherent in a death sentence. Reading this book was difficult because every execution reminded me of the thirty-three I have experienced while on death row. Many of my friends are no longer here. Normally, you might think that, when relating to another’s experience it would be comforting to know you are not alone.
“We banged on our bars for Henry Hays. Black. White. It didn’t matter. I knew he was scared. I knew he was alone. I knew that he was afraid that hell waited on the other side of death row because of what he had done . . .I screamed so Henry would know that he meant something . . I yelled for Henry so he would hear me and so he would know that he didn’t have to meet his maker alone . . .” (p. 162-163).
For the condemned who walk or are dragged to their death it may help to know they are not alone, if only briefly. For those of us who await our turn that “shared-fate-comfort” wears thin after so many years. Ray’s primal scream had more to do with his desire to be recognized as a human being, though his intent may have been altruistic.
This scene made me angry because capital punishment is such an arbitrary and cruel mechanism of the criminal justice system, one that is a legislative act in most states. If average citizens could vote on the death penalty and know the full scope of torment involved, they would vote to abolish.
It was hard to separate Ray’s feelings and experiences from my own. The injustice done to him made my eyes burn. Innocence, the US Supreme Court has ruled, is not an appealable issue, yet prosecutors consistently pursue death against innocent people. There was never any evidence Ray committed a crime so law enforcement fabricated what they needed to gain a conviction. As one detective told Ray:
“You know, I don’t care whether you did or didn’t do it. In fact, I believe you didn’t do it. But it doesn’t matter. If you didn’t do it, one of your brothers did . . .I can give you five reasons why they are going to convict you . . you’re black . . a white man gonna say you shot him . . . you gonna have a white district attorney . . .you gonna have a white judge. And . . . you’re gonna have an all-white jury . . .You know what that spell?” (p. 52).
Antony Ray Hinton’s case is not an anomaly. Criminal convictions are rarely about the truth, comprised of assumptions, stereotypes, prejudice and punishment of the first person who puts up the least amount of resistance to a charge. The “facts” matter insofar as they align with a prosecutor’s theory, anything that does not is ignored or suppressed, which includes exculpatory evidence. Like Alabama, North Carolina has prosecuted numerous people who are innocent yet sentenced to death. In 2014 Henry McCollum, who had been on death row for 30 years, was the ninth exoneration in NC, whereas Anthony Ray Hinton became Alabama’s sixth in 2015. Hinton and McCollum are only two of 164 exonerations from death row since the US reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Minorities – black and Hispanic – comprise 45 percent of that figure (https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-cases).
Some of my discomfort from reading The Sun Does Shine is in the vast differences between our conditions of confinement. Death row prisoners in Alabama are held in 23 hour a day solitary confinement without regular access to books beyond a few allowed by the warden, and a Bible. Their food is meager, interaction limited, and executions are carried out “right down the hall” from their cells. As if that was not bad enough, with the electric chair
“ . . .there was the sound of a generator kicking on and then hissing and popping, and the lights in the hall outside my cell flickered on and off. And then through the night, the smell came. It’s hard to explain what death smells like, but it burned my nose and stung my throat and made my eyes water and stomach turn over” (p. 98)
North Carolina executions occur in another section of Central Prison, and before the lethal injection a gas chamber was used up until 1998. NC’s death row is not locked down and we interact with one another on the block, on the rec yard where there is grass and a cracked concrete basketball court, and in the chow hall where we eat together. Executions have been on hold since 2006, whereas Alabama has continued to kill people. We have regular access to books and magazines and do not have to rely on coping mechanisms like “day tripping” to escape the inhumanity of long-term solitary confinement. (“Escape from Death Row: A study of ‘Tripping’ as an individual adjustment strategy among death row prisoners” http://scholars.unh.edu/unh_lr/Vol.6/iss3/10)
I hesitate to characterize my life on death row as “humane”, but it is at least less horrifying than Alabama’s death row. Our fight for survival, the struggle to prove our worth as people is the same. We too are “haunted by a past we cannot go back and change”(p. 95). I recognize everything is a choice and “spending your days waiting to die is no way to live” (p. 118). How we arrive at that point and what we do once there is one way diversity manifests itself on death row.
I agree people should be held accountable for their crimes, that punishing those who are actually guilty of hurting and victimizing others is necessary for public safety. However, doing so should not preclude equality, justice and a path to redemption. The death penalty, in addition to denying human dignity, cannot be applied fairly or humanely. The medicalization of capital punishment through legal injections continues to violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The criminal justice system punishes by race and socioeconomic status, striking at the heart of diversity while creating an underclass of citizens. The death penalty and cases like Anthony Ray Hinton’s demonstrate the many failings of a legal system devoid of judicial and prosecutorial accountability.
There might seem to be little I can do from death row. Reason dictates that, regardless of the facts, society has judged and cast me out. After all, capital punishment is the greatest indictment of and assault on one’s humanity there can be. Except, that would only be true if every prosecution was accurate and absent of misconduct, defendants received legal representation equal to the effort put forward by the State to gain a conviction, and individual legislators acknowledged their role in the mass incarceration of American citizens. What I can do is challenge the narrative told about people on death row, to make the public aware we are living, thinking, feeling human beings who represent more than a crime to be punished.
Death row is a place, not necessarily a state of mind, and as long as I am able to write I can bridge the divide between the community and the people it would rather forget. People like Anthony Ray Hinton. Everyone is prison is not innocent, but each person should receive human treatment and a chance to prove they are more than their worst mistakes. Some of the specific ways I am doing this is by pursuing a bachelor of specialized studies degree in criminal justice administration and combining that knowledge with my experiences to push for prison reform. I periodically publish articles in Scalawag Magazine, which covers southern social justice issues; The Marshall Project, an online source of criminal justice news; and the J Journal, a quarterly publication by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I am also a board member of Lifelines.is , an online audio journal of creative expressions from death row.
At the end of The Sun Does Shine is an “Afterward” that asks readers to look at the list of names for everyone on death row in the US as of March 2017.
“Read the names out loud. After every tenth name, say, ‘Innocent’. Add your son or your daughter’s name to the list. Or your brother or your mother or your father’s name to the list. Add my name to the list. Add your own. The death penalty is broken, and you are either part of the death squad or you are banging on the bars. Choose.” (p. 244)
My name is on that list. I choose to bang on the bars with every essay I write, each time I speak to a university class or church group over the phone, and with every opportunity to be more than my worst mistakes. I bang on the bars for all those who cannot, to let the public know we have value, and to remind the state we are human beings.