by Fran Withrow
Want a peek into what hell might be like? Then sit down with “The Sun Does Shine,” and be prepared to thank your lucky stars you are not on death row in Alabama (or anywhere, for that matter). Getting a glimpse into the daily life of those awaiting execution made me an even firmer opponent of the death penalty than I was previously.
Being on death row is horrendous for the guilty. But studies show that one out of every ten inmates who receive the death penalty is innocent. Anthony Ray Hinton is one of those innocents.
Hinton was a 28 year-old young man, living with his mother and working as an unskilled laborer when a string of robberies and murders occurred in his hometown. As he was mowing his grass one evening, the police arrived and arrested him. One of the victims had survived, and identified Hinton as his attacker. The police confiscated his mother’s gun, which had not been fired in twenty-five years, and classified it as the murder weapon.
Hinton received a court-appointed lawyer who had no money to mount a defense. The expert who claimed the bullets fired were not from Hinton’s family gun was blind in one eye and did not know how to use the equipment given him. Hinton was poor, black, and had stolen a car once. He quickly found himself in solitary confinement on death row.
Hinton lived in a five-by-seven foot cell for close to 30 years. He was allowed a shower every other day. He could walk outside in a cage for 15 minutes a day. Humiliation in the form of body searches, poor food, and an initial lack of compassion and respect by the guards seemed sure to send him into despair and mental anguish.
But Hinton, for all his hard luck, had some things going for him. He knew he was innocent. His mother and he had a strong, deeply loving relationship. And he had a best friend, Lester, who visited him without fail for the entire duration of his incarceration. Hinton also maintained an optimistic view whenever possible. He daydreamed his way into happier places, allowing his mind to leave his dreary circumstances even though his body couldn’t.
Hinton treated the guards with courtesy and eventually received that courtesy in kind. He called out to other inmates, encouraging them. He shouted support for those prisoners walking to the electric chair, which was only 30 feet from his cell.
Hinton even started a book club.
Eventually he connected with an amazing attorney: Bryan Stevenson, whose determination and hard work led to Hinton’s release in 2015.
After leaving prison, Hinton developed a new purpose in life: to speak out against the death penalty. At the back of the book is a list of all the current inmates, divided by state, facing execution. It is sobering to read.
You may already have passionate views about this form of punishment. No matter where you fall on this issue, Hinton’s book will make you think.
Read it, at least, for the five Virginia inmates facing this end.
Perhaps one of them is innocent.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
By Anthony Ray Hinton
St. Martin’s Press