The Sun Does Shine Summary

Coauthored by Laura Love Hardin, Anthony Ray Hinton's memoir offers a compelling account of his unjust conviction, thirty years as an inmate of Alabama’s Holman State Prison, and eventual release in 2015. In relating his experience with the criminal justice system, Hinton contends that his story is not unique: he is just one of thousands of wrongfully imprisoned individuals, a uniquely American injustice that has clear racial and class dimensions.

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Last Updated on October 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049

Introduction

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row is a memoir by Anthony Ray Hinton recounting his wrongful conviction of capital murder and the death sentence that resulted from the conviction. Hinton's sentence resulted in thirty years of solitary confinement at Holman Correctional Facility...

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Introduction

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row is a memoir by Anthony Ray Hinton recounting his wrongful conviction of capital murder and the death sentence that resulted from the conviction. Hinton's sentence resulted in thirty years of solitary confinement at Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama as he awaited death by electric chair. In the memoir, Hinton recounts both his time in prison and his time as a child and young man. Hinton's mother raised Hinton and his nine older siblings by herself while confronting poverty and racism in rural Alabama. Recurring motifs in the memoir include resilience, hope, faith, and our shared basic humanity against the backdrop of even the worst possible circumstances. The question the book asks on several occasions is whether there is a true price for a person’s life—and, in particular, whether the death penalty should still exist in the United States.

Plot Summary

The memoir opens with a foreword by Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who helped Hinton in his release from prison almost thirty years after his initial conviction. (Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989, four years after Hinton's initial trial.) He writes that in 1985, Ray Hinton was twenty-nine and charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of two restaurant employees in Birmingham. He was arrested while working in his mother's back garden. The two counts of capital murder that he was charged with were connected to a series of other fatal armed robberies at nearby restaurants. On the night that the two restaurant managers were murdered, a third was also shot—and survived. The third victim's misidentification of Hinton as the assailant helped the prosecution in destroying Hinton's defense.

Despite the fact that the prosecution only had two pieces of evidence—an unreliable witness and a .38 revolver in Hinton's mother's house that had clearly not been fired in years (though the prosecution claimed to have ballistics evidence tying it to the crime)—Hinton was charged with two counts of capital murder.

Stevenson presents the reader with the facts of the case and asks a central question: How did this happen? The two murders occurred while Hinton was working in a locked warehouse, and two witnesses (a security guard and his warehouse manager) confirmed that he was there. Furthermore, neither of Hinton's cars bore any resemblance to the murderer's. Stevenson writes that Hinton's court-appointed attorney was uncaring and incompetent in his duties, even racially biased, and that the jury did not trust the information presented by the witnesses on Hinton's behalf. It was systemic racism and the impacts of poverty, Stevenson contends, that destroyed any chance for an impartial trial. Ultimately, Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death not for the murders, but for the crime of being poor and black in Alabama.

At this point, Stevenson's foreword ends, and the rest of the book is told from Hinton's point of view. Hinton begins by recounting how he arrived in his holding cell, where he awaited his final sentencing in 1986. Despite holding out hope that the judge will realize his innocence, Hinton is sentenced to death by electrocution. The narrative shifts again here to explore Hinton's youth.

Racism serves as a continuous backdrop to Hinton's reminiscences of his life. Hinton writes that he was the youngest of ten children, all of whom his mother had to raise by herself after his father left the family due to mental illness when Hinton was four. Ray's youth is largely unremarkable: he goes to high school, holds menial jobs, and has relationships with girls. However, it is Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s, a time at which the South—as well as much of the rest of the United States—was marked by pervasive systemic racism. It is a time in which Hinton could have become incredibly angry at the injustice that surrounded him, but because of his mother's teachings of compassion and Christian values, he refused to give in to rage.

Hinton recounts a time in his twenties when he was desperate to have a vehicle to reliably get him to work and stole a car while test driving it. Racked with guilt, Hinton ultimately turned himself in two years later and went to prison. At the time of his arrest for robbery and two counts of murder, Hinton had recently been released on parole.

Hinton then describes his trial, in which several of the authority figures with power over Hinton's ultimate sentence proved to be motivated by deeply held racism. For example, a detective assigned to his case had been put on trial years prior for torturing black men so that they would give confessions to crimes. The prosecutor, Bob McGregor, was found to have illegally discriminated against African Americans in court cases on two occasions. When Ray's polygraph test came back saying that he had passed without lying, McGregor blocked it from being used during the trial. Hinton was also blocked from a fair trial by sheer indifference: Sheldon Perhacs, the public defender assigned to Hinton's case, was incompetent and unable to properly defend Hinton. It was partly through his lack of care that Hinton was sentenced to death.

Hinton's memoir then moves into his thirty years at Holman Prison and the unique horror of living on death row. This part of the memoir is painful and deeply tragic; however, Hinton's persistence and survival are also incredibly moving. For the first three years of Hinton's time at Holman, he refused to speak to anyone. He had lost faith and hope and, in many ways, had simply given up on his life. Hinton writes that he was so filled with hatred that, for the first three years,

Every hour of every day, I imagined how I would kill McGregor.

He writes about the constant fear and inhumane conditions that the prisoners dealt with on "the row." Men were victimized by the prison guards and faced temperatures exceeding 120 degrees in the summers; some lost their minds and bashed their heads against their cell walls, and rats came to eat the dried blood from their self-mutilation. Hinton could smell the flesh of his cellmates burning as they were electrocuted by "Yellow Mama," the electric chair down the hall from his cell. Every night, he heard cellmates screaming and sobbing, awaiting their own deaths. Hinton often wondered when a guard would come to his cell and tell him the date of his own scheduled execution.

Hinton's mother and his best friend from youth, Lester, visited him every chance they got. Ray hid his emotions from them, but on the inside, he was falling apart. As time went by, visits from Lester and Hinton's mother were the only thing that kept him going. Eventually, Hinton began to acclimate to his environment and regain his inherent faith, and the men on death row began forming close relationships. They shared legal advice, candy, and comfort with one another. When a man was led to the electric chair, the men banged on their cell bars and called the man's name to let him know that he was not dying alone.

Hinton fought to remain hopeful in other ways, too. He asked the warden of the prison if he could start a book club in the library for the men on death row, and the warden agreed. By reading books by authors like James Baldwin and Harper Lee, the men exchanged ideas and deepened their friendships. Hinton also found escape in the form of his imagination: he imagined marrying Halle Berry or Sandra Bullock, or even sitting down to tea with Queen Elizabeth. He did anything he could to mentally escape death row.

Perhaps the most harrowing part of the memoir is Hinton's description of his relationship with Henry Hays. Hays had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan and was sentenced to death for the lynching of a nineteen-year-old African American man in 1981. Hinton confronted Hays about his racist ideologies and ultimately came to realize that Hays had changed since being put in prison. This realization emphasizes one of the most crucial points of the novel: that is, that the death penalty is unjust and unethical, as the crime people are put to death for has already passed. The death penalty just kills the man. It does not undo the crime they committed or eliminate the evil part of themselves that once committed it.

As the two men developed a friendship, Hinton came to realize that Hays was only a product of his environment. Hays's father was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, and Hinton writes,

Henry Hays was cheated all his life. He was cheated by his father who taught him to hate. His community taught him to hate.

Eventually, Hays and Hinton considered one another close friends, and Hays even became a part of Hinton's book club. When Hays attempted to introduce his father to Hinton and their other friends, however, his father refused to meet them and instead chose to berate both his son and Hinton.

Hays was executed in 1997. Around this time, Hinton was one of the last of his friends on death row and the final member of his book club. He watched them all come and pass before him on their way to "Yellow Mama."

In 1998, thirteen years after Hinton was first placed on death row, the Equal Justice Initiative (Bryan Stevenson's firm) took on his case. The firm was well-known on death row; many men said it was their best chance of having their convictions overturned. Hinton never considered that they might take him on as a client, but one day, a woman visited the prison to say that she was with the Equal Justice Initiative and that she would be defending him, and soon after, Stevenson himself took over Hinton's case.

The Equal Justice Initiative ultimately handled Hinton's defense for sixteen years. Eventually, Stevenson had new ballistics testing done on the firearm that was used to tie Hinton to the murders in 1985. Three ballistics experts, including the former head of firearms testing at the FBI, analyzed the weapon and found it to be unconnected to the case. Stevenson believed that these experts would render the state of Alabama unable to ignore Hinton's appeal—but yet again, the state blocked Hinton's request. The state's pride, he writes, would not allow them to admit their wrongdoing and apologize to a black man. Finally, Hinton and Stevenson took the case to the United States Supreme Court: their last avenue of justice and their last hope for acquittal.

In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously voted that Hinton was owed a retrial due to his public defender's ineptitude and the new evidence presented in the case. In 2015, the Jefferson County district attorney and the state of Alabama dropped all charges against Hinton, knowing that they would not win in a retrial. The state of Alabama never apologized or took responsibility for Hinton's wrongful conviction.

The end of the book follows Hinton's attempts to rejoin society. He lived with his best friend, Lester, for some time, and he eventually moves into his mother's old house and begins fixing it up. However, Hinton is never quite comfortable: he is always fearful that he will have to return to prison. It is difficult for him to exist in the world after thirty years of imprisonment, even in small ways. Hinton writes,

It took me a little while to remember how to use a fork. You know we don't use forks in the penitentiary. You get a spoon. And the spoon is plastic, so I haven't used a fork in 30 years. I just really tried to order something that didn't make me look like I didn't have any home training. It’s like learning everything over again.

Eventually, Hinton writes, he is able to rejoin the outside world and begins speaking at universities and public engagements across the country, telling his story. He advocates for compassion and the abolishment of the death penalty. Over 150 men on death row have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit since the early 1980s, he points out, and his story concludes with a list of every man and woman currently on death row. The memoir serves as his tribute to them.

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