Book Review: The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row

the sun does shine

Title: The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
 Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Version: ARC – ebook (Uncorrected Proof)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Synopsis: GoodReads
Notable Notables: POC POV, focuses on Social Justice and Reform
Recommended Readers: EVERYONE
Rating: ★★★★★

Thank you, NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

It’s strange what you can get used to.

When I got the email promoting this book, I was blown away by the premise. In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton, a Black man living in Alabama, was convicted of two counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, and armed robbery and sentenced to death by electrocution. The catch? He was totally innocent of the crimes they accused him of committing; the only evidence the prosecutors offered during the trial was his mother’s gun as the murder weapon, which hadn’t been fired once in over 25 years. This so-called “evidence” along with bogus ballistics reports and racism from an all-white jury, judge, and prosecution ensured that Ray would spend almost 30 years on death row before he was ruled innocent in 2015.

Ray’s innocence, however, doesn’t happen magically, if the time it took is any indication. What follows in The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row is a long, uphill struggle for the truth to become known and justice to be served. Ray’s story is one of finding hope in hopelessness, love instead of hatred, and light instead of darkness–and he struggles at first. For three years, Ray doesn’t speak to anyone on death row, letting hate and rage fester inside of him as he loses faith in almost everything he’s ever believed in.

Until one day, the inmate in the cell next to him starts crying–a common occurrence on death row–but he sounds so anguished, so hopeless that Ray realizes something crucial about us humans. Hatred is a choice but so, too, is compassion.

Thus, Ray starts to show compassion along with his natural humor and positive outlook to his fellow inmates, some of them the worst of the worst–murderers, sadists, and rapists–and some innocent like him. What I love about Ray’s memoir is that he so thoroughly understands how complicated life is and how complicated people are, even the ones on death row. He makes a family out of these men, starts to give them something to hope for, and, in some cases, changes their lives.

The guards, too, are part of this equation, and the complicated nature of their relationship with the inmates defines much of the conflicted nature of existence on death row:

How could they take us to the doctor, feed us, commiserate with us, and then lead us to our deaths? It messed with our minds after a while. These men were our family also. We were all in this dark, dank, tiny corner of the world acting out some perverse play where we laughed together six days of the week, but on Thursdays, they killed us.

Imagine living like that. Imagine knowing a month before you’re going to die because these men who feed you and let you out of your cell for an hour every day told you the date. Imagine watching them practice marching you to the execution chamber until that day finally arrives, and in the meantime, they start to treat you real nice. Imagine what that does to a person. Now imagine watching it happen to people you know, people you talk to every day from inside your 5 x 7 cell over and over again, never knowing when you’re going to be next. That was Anthony Ray Hinton’s existence, in between worrying about his appeal.

It isn’t all bleak, though. Ray’s humor and honesty keeps the book refreshing even as it moves into darker and more serious topics. Readers are lucky because Ray himself is lucky. He has a mother who loves him unconditionally and believes in him without a doubt, and who raised him to be an amazing person. He has a best friend named Lester who never once in 30 years fails to come see him during visiting days at the prison. He has a faith in God that is tested, nearly abandoned, and then found again, a faith that is so totally genuine and loving of others that you can’t help but gravitate toward it. And, eventually, he finds a legal champion and a steadfast friend in Bryan Stevenson, a fellow African American man who works tirelessly to get Ray off death row and free from prison.

There’s a lot in this book to take in, and I won’t lie: I cried many times throughout, and I’m not the crying sort. So much of it, though, was moving, and if it wasn’t moving, it was heartbreaking, particularly with how long the legal process to prove his innocence actually took because the State of Alabama didn’t care or want to hear it.

However, at its core, The Sun Does Shine is about forgiveness. It takes a lot of strength for a person to forgive someone. It takes unimaginable strength to forgive an entire system and a whole host of people for taking 30 years of your life due to racism, forcing you to live in hell on earth, and making you witness execution after execution while they actively deny your legal cases for innocence. Somehow, Ray manages to find it within himself to do so, even after he struggles to adjust to an un-regimented life outside of prison and three decades of technological advancement he wasn’t even aware of. Somehow, he realizes that this terrible thing happened to him so he could pursue his higher purpose: ending the death penalty forever.

[The death penalty is] the symbol elected officials hold up to strengthen their tough-on-crime reputations while distracting us from the causes of violence. The death penalty is an enemy of grace, redemption and all who value life and recognize that each person is more than their worst act.

I don’t know where you stand on the death penalty, lethal injection or otherwise. I don’t know if you’re staunchly for it, against it, or on the fence about it. Maybe you’ve never given much thought to it at all. In any case, I encourage you to read this memoir because it brings this vague yet decisive punishment that most of us will never face or witness with our own eyes to the forefront. It makes us confront the fact that incredibly fallible and oftentimes biased people administer this punishment to the point where one out of ten people are sent to death row yet are innocent of their accused crimes.

If you don’t think that’s a lot of people, if you don’t think that that matters, then flip to the back of the book. Read the names and after every tenth person, say, “Innocent.” You’ve got a ton of names to read, but this review can wait.

In addition to the flaws of the death penalty, The Sun Does Shine also raises questions about America’s prisons, racial biases, and deficient legal systems, about how the rich and guilty are treated better than the poor and innocent. Ray’s memoir will stir much debate and discussion should you pick this book up for your next book club (encouraged) or assign it to your classroom (doubly encouraged).

Plus, there’s much here in the way of empathy and calls to action, and that’s something that’s sorely needed in the world right now.

As my good friend Bryan Stevenson says, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but justice needs help. Justice only happens when good people take a stand against injustice.

The Sun Does Shine will be published on March 27, 2018, and I can’t wait for you guys to pick it up!

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