2018 has been a very good reading year for me, and I can recommend several books to you, depending on your tastes and interests. But I finished one last night that I want everyone I know to read. I can say that about two books I’ve read this year, actually: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I’ve already mentioned here before and now The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (Bryan Stevenson wrote the foreword and plays a major part in Hinton’s story.)
Ray Hinton’s story of being convicted of a crime he did not commit and incarcerated on death row for almost thirty (THIRTY!) years is all at once heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and blood-boiling — yet it somehow manages to be hopeful and encouraging. It helps that Ray is just plain likeable, a regular guy in Alabama who loves his mama and good food and football but was treated with monstrous injustice by the State of Alabama. (I hate to lump all of the individuals who did him harm into that innocuous “State” term.) It is maddening to read about how the system does not work for poor black people like it does for those who can afford good representation.
I so badly want to believe that governments can be trusted, that people in power are acting according to the law, doing their duty. This ISTJ wants to believe that rules are followed. But they’re not. People and systems can be corrupt and lazy. And, after all, we’re born with that bent:
Ray Hinton was wrongly convicted in 1985 and finally set free in 2015. I was a junior in high school in 1985, and between then and 2015, I went to Auburn, met my husband, had two children, lived all over the world, got divorced, and started a whole new life with Paul. So for just about my entire adult life, Ray was sitting in a tiny cell in Alabama, his freedom stolen from him by people who were dishonest, incompetent, selfish, racist, and just plain evil.
[Hinton’s book, along with Just Mercy, has me re-thinking some things related to the death penalty. Hinton believes that capital punishment equals murder, but I don’t agree. When the state takes the life of a person who has taken a life, I don’t believe it is the same thing as murder. But if the person is innocent? And has not been tried fairly? Well, that is murder.]
Here’s a little glimpse of Ray Hinton, in the early years of his imprisonment:
No one can understand what freedom means until they don’t have it. It’s like being wrapped in a straightjacket all day every day. You can’t make a choice about how to live. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a choice to make–any choice. I think I’ll go for a walk rather than go to bed right now. I think I’ll have chicken for dinner. I think I’d like to take a drive and just see where I end up. I didn’t begrudge Lester [Ray’s best friend] his life and his choices. I was happy for him. I wanted nothing more than for him to be happy. I would be sorry to miss the wedding and sad not to be able to stand next to him and be his best man. I had to get out of this place. I thought about the children I would never have if I didn’t get off death row. I wanted a son. I wanted to play baseball with a son someday. And basketball. I wanted to take him to Auburn games so he knew there was only one team in Alabama that mattered. I wanted to show him the woods, and the river, and the quiet beauty of a night spent in the country. I wanted to show him how to fish and teach him how to drive. I wanted to show him that anything was possible in this world if you only had faith.
My breath caught and I stopped pacing.
Faith. How could I teach anyone about faith when I didn’t have it?
“Oh God. Help me, God…”
(You know right where I smiled in that first paragraph, don’t you?)
And I have to share this bit from when Ray asked the warden for permission to start a book club on death row:
“Look,” I said. “These guys need something to focus on besides what the guards are doing and not doing for them. Besides the heat. Besides the fact that our food tastes like dirt. You know? It’s a way to keep the peace. A book club will help things stay more peaceful.”
“You can’t have guys spending twenty-three hours a day thinking about death. It makes them crazy. And when people go crazy, who know what they’ll do.” It may have been a bit much, but it was the truth. I wanted him to believe that if we had books on the row, it would keep the inmates quiet. But really I knew that it would set them free. If the guys had books, they could travel the world. They would get smarter and freer. There was a reason back in the slave days the plantation owners didn’t want their slaves to learn to read. Charlie Jones [the warden] probably had family who once owned my family, but I wasn’t going to bring that up. I wasn’t going to show him anything but how a book club would keep the peace.
He got his book club, at least for a little while.
I’ve gone on long enough here, so I’ll just say one more time: Please read this book. Both Just Mercy and The Sun Does Shine were loaned to me (Thanks, CK!), but I’m going to get my own copies. If you do read them, let me know what you think.