Anthony Ray Hinton is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. It’s because Ray has had to endure an ordeal so gruesome and unimaginable, and he’s not only survived it, he’s come out of it with a profound will, deep passion for forgiveness and kindness, determination to move on and an astonishing and exhilarating sense of humour. This is not what you’d expect of a man who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row, convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit – the victim of a deeply, and often unapologetically, racist criminal justice system.
In 1986, Ray was arrested, charged and sentenced to death for two murders in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time, he was a 29 year-old living with his mom Buhlar, by all accounts a towering presence of love, compassion and warmth in this young man’s life. Detectives investigating the killings quickly set their eyes on Ray, not because there was any evidence linking him to the crime (there wasn’t), but because they were determined to pin these murders on a young black man, and Ray was just the man they wanted. In 1980s Alabama, equal justice under the law meant different things to different people. If you were white and wealthy, fairness was easy to find. But for African-Americans, fairness and equality were distant ideas, especially in death penalty cases. “If you don’t have the capital, you will get the punishment,” they say in the South, and people like Ray didn’t stand much of a chance to begin with. Sadly, the racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system remain to this day. If you are black and charged with a crime, whether it’s a drug offence or homicide, chances are your sentence will be more severe than that imposed on a white person charged with the same crime.
What followed Ray’s conviction in a trial that bears all the hallmarks of an egregious miscarriage of justice was a continuous nightmare – a nightmare Ray had to suffer wide awake. Over the course of three decades, he watched in agony as 54 of his fellow prisoners were taken to the death chamber, either to face the electric chair or lethal injection. And every time, he wondered when it would be his turn to make that final walk. Ray always maintained his innocence, but it wasn’t until he saw Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson on television that he felt he might have a last chance to prove he had nothing to do with those crimes. Bryan, an Alabama native, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the most impressive civil rights advocates around, took on Ray’s case and challenged his conviction all the way up to the US Supreme Court and back to the Alabama courts where it began. The exculpatory evidence was overwhelming, as were the blatant errors of the prosecution. Nevertheless, it took 16 years for justice to prevail. On April 3rd, 2015, Ray became the 152nd US death row inmate to be exonerated. He walked out of Holman Correctional Facility, a free man at last.
I first met Ray just a year later when he visited Necker Island. He’d be forgiven for harbouring resentment, even hate. But the man I met wasn’t having any of that. When he told his story, it was a story of never giving up hope, a story of finding purpose in whatever life deals you, a story of forgiveness and resilience – and a story of holding on to the things that keep us going - hope, love, joy, and zest for life.
Now Ray has written a beautiful and touching book about his experience. The Sun Does Shine manages to be both exasperating and inspirational. Exasperating because it exposes a broken criminal justice system marred by racial disparities, malicious intent, and often outright incompetence – of defence attorney, of judges, of so-called “experts”. It is a scathing indictment of the death penalty that should give all of us good cause to fight for its abolition. But there is so much uplift and inspiration on those pages, too. In Ray’s own words, “we have to find ways to recover after bad things happen. We have to make every ending be a happy ending.” Even in our darkest moments, the sun does shine.