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The Sun Does Shine [Book Review]

Summary

The Sun Does Shine is an autobiography written by Anthony Ray Hinton about his life and experience as a wrongfully convicted man. At the age of 29, Hinton was arrested in connection with a string of robberies that left two people dead. A poor Black man living in Alabama, Hinton, could not independently afford an attorney or mount a vigorous defense. Convicted and sentenced to death, Hinton would spend the next 28 years fighting for his freedom and his life.

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I have a deep interest in true crime from both the investigation side as well as courtroom proceedings. I enjoy the analysis that goes into solving crimes and how it translates into an opportunity to learn about the legal justice system. There are great members of law enforcement and the justice system who do their jobs to ensure that not just victims but also their families get justice. But, the flip side of that coin is that there are also people who are not diligent and/or bring their personal biases to work. And that reality should give us all pause as years of a person’s life, their very life to be accurate, can hang in the balance.

Let’s go ahead and get it out of the way from the very beginning that I don’t agree with the death penalty regardless of the crime or circumstances. Given the chance, regardless of how small it might be, that an innocent person could be put to death, the death penalty should not be an option. A major factor is that the justice system isn’t infallible. The history of the justice system makes it clear that it is not and has not been blind.

In the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, we have a man who at 29-years-old was accused of committing two violent murders and shooting a third. He had no prior history of violence. Going into the justice system Hinton looked around and saw that aside from the other prisoners, there was no one there that looked like him. Thus he wasn’t being charged or judged by a group of his peers and given the history of Alabama, this wasn’t a surprise. His arrest, conviction, and all the court proceedings were unfortunate but not unexpected.

In 1985, a string of fast-food restaurant robberies began in Alabama where two managers were murdered in the Birmingham area and a third manager near Bessemer was shot but survived. At the time Hinton was still living in his childhood home with his mother in a small nearby town. He was working overnight as a cleaner at a store where he was locked in from midnight to about 6 AM. On the night of the Bessemer robbery, Hinton stated that he was miles away locked in at work as was the usual practice. But the Bessemer manager identified Hinton as the robber which led to police picking him up from his mother’s house. During a search of the home, police found an old gun that they alleged had been used in the shootings.

Based on what I’ve learned from different stories about people in prison it seems that a solid support system makes it easier for them to do their time. Yet many incarcerated people don’t have solid support systems before they arrive in jail and for others, their support system dwindles when they’re serving long sentences. It’s typically assumed that an incarcerated person’s parents, especially their mother, would offer support during their sentence. That was the case with Hinton as his mother was one of his strongest advocates. But most of his siblings had moved away in search of better opportunities long before his arrest. And sadly, some assumed that he was guilty so they were unwilling to offer support. I believe two of his sisters also stood by him but I was most surprised that his best friend, Lester, offered the same degree of consistent support as his mother. (Hinton’s father had been placed in a facility after suffering an injury that affected his brain and mental faculties.)

There were several issues with his case but once the police and prosecution deemed him guilty, lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary was not considered. Then to make matters worse he was assigned a legal aid attorney who didn’t seem interested or committed to the case, although Hinton’s life was at risk. I don’t know what the going wage is for a private defense attorney but Hinton explains that he overheard his attorney complaining about the fee that he was being paid. A lawyer who is used to being paid large amounts of money might not be motivated to give a low-paying case his all. Thus Hinton’s lawyer failed to thoroughly cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, didn’t present evidence that was favorable to Hinton, and didn’t hire qualified experts.

Hinton was being railroaded and seemingly fighting the justice system without proper legal guidance or assistance. But his determination to advocate for himself and stand up in court to proclaim his innocence stuck with me. He struck a balance between showing respect for the victims and their families while reiterating his innocence. I would imagine that being in a courtroom is stressful and likely makes a lot of defendants nervous, especially if they’re not wealthy or highly educated. It’s admirable that even under these circumstances when many would try to kowtow and make themselves as small as possible, Hinton stood up and unapologetically spoke up for himself.

Despite his passionate protest, Hinton was still convicted on a 10-2 decision and sentenced to death. Receiving the death penalty versus a life sentence was both a gift and a curse. Hinton would have to spend years living with the mental strain of possibly having an execution date handed down. But, by being sentenced to death, a lengthy appeals process along with more legal resources became available.

Hinton points out that part of the reason so many death penalty cases are reviewed and/or overturned is that capital punishment cases typically receive more media attention and greater resources are offered to the accused. To a degree, the government and justice organizations provide those who have been convicted with better resources to mount a vigorous defense. It can take years, maybe even decades, for a person to be executed after being sentenced to death. This is because they typically have the right to exhaust all appeals before receiving an execution date.

It’s sadly ironic that Hinton had to be sentenced to death to receive adequate legal representation. This man would end up sitting in prison for almost 30 years and his life was only spared because he was able to make contact with committed lawyers. Just imagine how many more cases would be overturned if all defendants were offered this high level of resources during their initial trial or while serving a non-death penalty sentence. Also consider how differently things might have gone if Hinton was illiterate, had mental health issues, or was otherwise incapable of taking the initiative to reach out for legal help. What if he was simply unable to get anyone interested in his case?

Understandably Hinton began his sentence as an angry man who was initially confused about being arrested and indicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. The investigators and prosecution were looking for someone, really anyone, to convict and placed a higher priority on expediently closing the case rather than finding the real killer. And this persecution by the prosecution was further aided by his attorney providing ineffective counsel.

We all know that we’re going to die one day. It’s rough for some people with terminal illnesses to live with the knowledge that there’s an anticipated time frame within which they will likely die. I could only imagine what it must feel like to sit on death row where you live in fear of receiving an execution date. While you might be in a cell by yourself, you’re surrounded by other people with the same looming fate. And in the interim, you bear witness to other inmates being walked to the death chamber. This is torture and would create a struggle to maintain one’s sanity.

This court case didn’t just cost him his freedom in the physical sense but also relationships that he valued. At the time of his arrest, Hinton was dating a woman that he saw himself marrying and raising children. But he asked her to move on with her life because he would be in for a long fight and it wouldn’t be fair to ask her to put her life on hold. As a result, he missed out on getting married and having a family of his own.

Some family members failed to consider that the prosecution got things wrong and had presented inaccurate information at trial. They too were swayed into believing that Hinton committed these crimes. This created a driving passion in Hinton to not just be released from prison but to be exonerated.

Yet, in fear of his words being used against him, he refused to speak to anyone in the prison which included the guards and other prisoners. For a moment amid his despair, he lost himself and turned away from his religion, something that usually gave him hope. Serving his time in this angry and closed-off manner was allowing the justice system to not just imprison his body but also eat away at his soul.

Eventually, Hinton changed his approach to serving his time in prison. Instead of just letting the time slip away he began working on the development of his imagination. Thus, while he couldn’t physically leave the prison, he could mentally transport himself to other places. This gave him a sense of freedom and in doing so he realized that it might be a good idea to share this skill with the other inmates.

Hinton was feeling lonely and isolated being away from his mother, best friend, church, and community. Regardless of how they came to be on death row, Hinton and the other men were there together. They were connected by this unique experience of facing the possibility of death while also seeing people walk off to the death chamber to be killed. Being in prison and having these thoughts constantly on your mind is overwhelming.

The men were housed together in one section of the prison but locked away in individual cells. One of the other prisoners suffered a tragic loss with which the other men empathized as they all had similar experiences or just understood what it’s like to be locked away while dealing with such heavy problems. Hinton was affected by the man’s grief and reached out to him as did the other men. They’re isolated but the nature of the environment and being surrounded by other men makes them feel as though they must hide their feelings and vulnerability.

Humans are social creatures and though we’re not always kind to each other, there is a desire or need to see and interact with other people. Despite whatever they might have done or whoever they might have been before they came to prison, the men become a support system for each other. They’re effectively all in solitary confinement so have limited contact with anyone else. But it feels a little less lonely to be able to speak with the guy in the cell next to you or a few cells down.

Trapped in his cell, Hinton used his vivid imagination to mentally escape the prison and date a variety of female celebrities. He’d developed this skill before he was arrested when he was feeling trapped by the lack of opportunities in his day-to-day life. Using his mind he could imagine different places he might want to visit and things he might like to do. It meant something for him to close his eyes and imagine being somewhere else when he was locked in a cell most hours of the day just staring at the wall. These daydreams certainly didn’t change the reality of his situation or at least not immediately but it made his sentence a little easier to manage.

Children have vivid imaginations but life happens and many people lose that inner fantasy world as they get older. But I think it’s a useful skill that can become a powerful tool for improving and transforming your life as an adult. Being able to close your eyes and see yourself not just as you are, but more importantly as the improved version of yourself that you want to be is incredible. I think nurturing an imagination as an adult would help a lot more people envision a path to achieving their dreams, increasing their likelihood of finding fulfillment in life.

Hinton realized how helpful this imaginary inner world had become to him and wanted to share this tool with others. Not all of them had seen enough of the outside world to be able to conjure these images without assistance. As a result, Hinton thought it would be a good idea for the men to read more to expand their imaginations and decided to start a book club. The men came from different backgrounds and some were well educated while others had only completed a few grades of school so their reading abilities varied accordingly.

It seems that a lot of people who go to prison, might not have read much before their incarceration but they start reading when they get to jail to pass the time. I found it surprising that at the time, the Bible was the only book allowed on death row. Inmates could visit and read in the library (with limitations) but they couldn’t take books back to their cells.

I related to the sense of freedom that Hinton got from daydreaming and reading as well as his desire to bond with other people over books. That’s why I started Noire Histoir. I’ve always been an avid reader but I was going through some personal and professional challenges and came across a few books that spoke to me. They certainly didn’t solve all of my problems but it helped me to know that other people had gone through similar things and found a way out. I felt a great deal of inspiration and motivation in those books and wanted to share them with other people. The formation of Hinton’s book club and how it played out was one of my favorite parts of the book.

Literature is a creative form like art, music, film, etc. but unlike the other forms, you don’t have to use your vision, hearing, or sense of touch to experience it. You read the words on a page or in the case of braille feel the words and once you get to the point of reading without needing to sound out words, speech and hearing become less important. Thus you reach a point where even the physical act of reading is reduced to moving your eyes or fingers across the page. Yet you can comprehend and form the corresponding images and sounds in your mind. And with that, we can all read the same book but visualize its contents differently. Despite reading the same book, interpretations can vary widely.

The prisoners were able to visit the law library once per week to read to better understand the law in general and their specific cases. By dedicating themselves to this practice, the law books which were initially indecipherable would become easier to understand over time. Letters from lawyers and legal teams would also be passed around and discussed. These various activities helped the men to stay busy and feel productive but it was still all under the constant worry about a potential execution date. In contrast, reading and discussing books that were unrelated to their current circumstances gave the men a chance to take their minds off of what they were going through.

It’s been proven time and again that people who are Black, poor, developmentally delayed, or otherwise lacking privilege are more likely to be convicted and receive stiffer sentencing. Conversely, being White can result in greater leniency, and being of a higher income bracket can grant access to more resources resulting in far different treatment for the wealthy.

I don’t think it’s ethical for the justice system or the government to condemn someone to death. As Hinton expresses we call it the death penalty or capital punishment but those terms are used to sanitize the action’s name which is more accurately murder. You don’t get justice for a murder victim by murdering someone else.

If someone robs a house or commits a crime along those lines we don’t do it like in the days of Hammurabi and take an eye for an eye. If you assault someone or cause damage to their body or a body part we don’t then injure the accused’s corresponding body part. When it gets up to the point of murder where when someone has died, there’s no bringing them back and that’s certainly unfortunate. But I fail to see how it’s justice for the government to turn around and murder someone in retaliation for the murder they’ve committed.

Before we even get to the point of talking about executions, just consider the people who have spent decades in prison only to be released or have their convictions overturned because of issues during their trial. We’ve seen, especially in recent years with the advent of DNA, not just one or two cases but several cases where years later after people have spent years in prison that new or re-examined evidence exonerates them. By all means, if someone is convicted of a crime put them in prison. But there’s a problem if we analyze the data and find that Group A is being charged more frequently and/or sentenced more harshly for committing the same crime as Group B.

In instances where people are just serving time, should they be wrongly convicted, they can be released. They can’t get back the time they served but they should be compensated. And if it’s found that wrongful conviction came about due to unethical or negligent conduct the offending parties should be disciplined up to and including prosecution. But what possible remedy can there be for an individual who is executed and evidence later points to their innocence?

An innocent life that is taken can’t be given back. Once a person is dead, they can’t be brought back to life because a mistake was made. The consequences of an error with a death penalty conviction are high because a life, any human life, is irreplaceable. That should be all the explanation needed for not having the death penalty.

With emotions running high and the victim’s loved ones wanting relief, the impulse of wanting vengeance is understandable. But we shouldn’t allow emotions to dictate the legal response or decisions regarding punishment. And if justice is supposed to be blind, meaning everyone is subject to the same legal procedures, how can we as a society possibly allow emotions to make it ok for the system to murder someone in our name in retaliation for them committing a crime?

The introduction to The Sun Does Shine that was offered by Bryan Stevenson provided a lot of really interesting context with regards to the reality of the justice system. He states that within the current justice system a rich guilty person has a better chance of getting off than an innocent person with a low or average income. Fortunately, at this point, it’s different than it was in the past where all people were not guaranteed legal representation.

Yet there’s an obvious difference in the quality of the defense that a wealthy person can afford to mount versus what a low or middle-income person can put together with a public defender. A key aspect of the contrast in the quality of a defense relates to the time lawyers can dedicate to a case. There’s also a difference with regards to the ability to obtain expert witnesses, tests, and other resources. Then when you consider race, that adds another layer of complexity. To be clear, these are not opinions. These are facts based on years, decades at this point, of data and research.

The Sun Does Shine offers some insight into capital punishment from both a legal standpoint as well as what it’s like to live on death row. A lot of the people that have had this unique experience don’t get an opportunity to tell their story. Especially because the end of a person’s time on death row is often caused by their death from natural causes or execution.

Hinton’s story as a wrongly convicted man who spends 30-years of his life on death row and is then exonerated offers a different perspective. When it comes to true crime and legal dramas a lot of the focus is placed on the investigation and legal proceedings which is certainly interesting. But I thought this was a different take on both because so often those stories only offer a few tidbits about the person accused of the crime. Often, even when reading a book or watching a movie about a wrongfully convicted person, the lawyer is the hero. Yet, here the story centers on Hinton and you get to see the case through his eyes, letters from attorneys, and interactions with his different lawyers.

It’s tense as the appeals progress and the possibility of Hinton receiving an execution date moves closer to becoming a reality. My intent is not to trivialize his experience or make it seem like his life was a source of entertainment. But his story helped to humanize death row inmates. It transformed capital punishment from this abstract thing that happens to these faceless people into a prolonged form of passive-aggressive torture that is carried out against human beings. We learn about Hinton, his childhood, and who he was as a person before his arrest. He’s presented as a flawed but fully formed human being. We also learn about his mother, his best friend, and the church that supported him, and how all these lives are also affected by his wrongful imprisonment.

We all go through phases and life changes and most of us would have fairly interesting life stories. But the major difference is that Hinton went through these changes in prison. Just imagine who you would be and where you would be in life at 29-years-old versus who and where you would be 28 years later. Now compare what those years would be like living in the free world versus spending them in prison.

Often when we hear stories about incarcerated people, the focus tends to be on the savagery of prison and how people adjust to the environment and thus devolve over time. That certainly happens to Hinton in his early days of incarceration where he loses himself for a period and no longer recognizes himself as his mother’s child. I completely understood and sympathized with his anger at sitting on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. But his story hit different having him speak about himself and his life experience while at the same time giving voice to the despair that he felt at constantly having his hopes and dreams dashed.

The Sun Does Shine is a book that is incredibly sad and unfortunate. But it’s also a book that people should read and then use to discuss the reality of the justice system and capital punishment. It’s not just a matter of the execution of people who through whatever means are found guilty but let’s also reconcile that with the story of this man that even the state eventually had to admit was wrongfully imprisoned. Let’s think about what it means to have even just a possibility that an innocent person could be put to death.

I’ve purposely glossed over the details of the trial and appeals process in favor of discussing Hinton’s experience on death row. But even there I didn’t delve deeply into his full story so the book would still be worth reading. My goal with these book reviews, more accurately discussions, is to make you aware of various that I think are worth checking out and then us having a discussion of our interpretations. I highly recommend reading The Sun Does Shine for yourself but then I’d love to know what you think about it.

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