The 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge directed me to read a book from a celebrity book club list, and I was like a deer in the headlights for a moment. I’m not much of a celebrity watcher at all, and honestly, the only time I hear about celebrity book clubs are when other people bring them up, so I had to go digging. I’ve read some of Oprah’s selections in the past, and I’ve heard people talking about Reese Witherspoon’s book club, but that’s still really all I know. The lists I looked at, nothing really jumped out at me, until… I spotted The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin (St. Martin’s Press, 2018). This was an Oprah selection, and I immediately knew that this was something I had to read. This is one of the most incredible, painful books I’ve ever read about the American “justice” system.
Anthony Ray Hinton was a Black man in Alabama who signed in at work in a warehouse, plenty of people around him. That mattered nothing to the police, who accused him of three murders (one of which was committed during this time Mr. Hinton was at work, the others just tacked on because they were similar), and a jury, who convicted him. Failed over and over again by his court-appointed lawyer and the experts who weren’t as expert as they should’ve been, Ray, as he’s known, is sentenced to death by electric chair.
Appeal after appeal falls through, and at first, Ray’s anger nearly eats him alive. But then he begins to apply the life lessons his beloved mother taught him to living in such terrible isolation on Death Row, and this change in attitude helps him survive. And then his case was taken up by Bryan Stevenson, of Just Mercy, himself…
Despite Mr. Stevenson, whom I’m convinced has been sent here to do God’s work on earth, finding experts (actual ones, three of them!) to prove that the gun the police pulled out of Ray’s mother’s house couldn’t possibly have been used in the murders Ray was convicted of, it still takes twelve years for Ray to be set free. In all, he spends nearly THIRTY YEARS waiting to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, listening to his friends make their final walk down the hallway to be murdered by the guards in charge of the men’s everyday lives, smelling their burning flesh wafting on the air for hours after they’re put to death. If that doesn’t enrage you, I’m not sure what will.
This is an absolutely incredible, deeply enraging book. What the state of Alabama did to Mr. Hinton, how it destroyed his life and his family, with what seems like zero remorse, disgusts me to the very depths of my soul. That this is how poor Black men are treated in this country, even when their innocence is able to be proven, PROVEN, is utterly horrifying. Mr. Hinton’s experiences are shocking, but they’re not uncommon: one in every ten people sentenced to death in the United States is innocent.
I’ll say that again.
One-tenth of the people murdered by the United States government are innocent of the crimes they were accused of.
That is a shocking statistic. If I weren’t already vehemently opposed to the death penalty before reading this, I would definitely be now. The fact that the state of Alabama stole thirty years of Mr. Hinton’s life without so much as an, “Oops, my bad,” and only doubled down, desperate to murder him even when stronger evidence from more qualified experts was presented that he couldn’t possibly have committed these murders, fills me with such rage that I desperately wish I were intelligent enough to become a lawyer and join Bryan Stevenson’s team. They deserve all the help they can get to do the noble work of saving lives from government-sanctioned murder.
This is an utterly incredible book, and I don’t think there was a single page I read that I didn’t want to scream or rage-vomit. I read books to learn about the world, to experience it through other people’s eyes, to feel. This book checks all three categories in spades. Five stars, and I truly hope Mr. Hinton is able to live a calm, quiet life of peace in the wake of such trauma.
Read more about Anthony Ray Hinton’s case at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.