The Sisters of The Good Samaritan - Protection of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults
November 2019

Finding freedom on death row

The Sun Does Shine is about the triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable adversity and of hope over hate, writes Judith Valente.

By Judith Valente

Racism is an ulcerating sore on the American moral character. You might call it my country’s original sin. Dating from slavery to segregation, it is a poison that continues to seep into the current era. Nowhere is this more evident than in the American criminal justice system.

A glaring example is the nightmare story of Anthony Ray Hinton, a black man in the state of Alabama. Hinton was arrested in 1985 at the age of 29 in connection with the attempted robbery and murder of a restaurant manager. He was eventually convicted of killing two other restaurant managers and sentenced to die by electrocution. He spent the next 30 years on death row for crimes he didn’t commit.

This occurred despite the flimsiest of physical evidence against Hinton – a gun belonging to Hinton’s mother that hadn’t been fired in 25 years. There were also witness statements that were later proven to be false or else strongly influenced by police. Hinton’s prior record of stealing a car in his youth and writing a few bad checks propelled him in the eyes of the police as a murder suspect.

The story, however, goes beyond a single miscarriage of justice. It gets to the heart of a system too often biased against people of colour with few means to obtain a proper defence. Hinton relates how a detective coldly predicts he will be convicted. “I can give you five reasons why they are going to convict you,” Hinton quotes the detective as saying. “Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man gonna say you shot him. Number three, you’re gonna have a white district attorney. Number four, you’re gonna have a white judge. And number five, you’re gonna have a white jury… You know what that spells? Conviction. Conviction. Conviction. Conviction. Conviction”.

This is what passed for justice in the American South in 1985, two decades after the Civil Rights Act assured all citizens equal rights under the law. Hinton’s book offers no compelling reason to believe another man or woman unjustly accused isn’t facing a similar circumstance today.

Hinton eventually was exonerated with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organisation led by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson’s success in reopening Hinton’s case, despite numerous roadblocks put up by the state of Alabama, reads like the narrative of a legal thriller tailor-made for film. But there is a parallel story within the legal one that should concern every person of faith. That is, whether it is an equally heinous act to kill a human being for the crime of killing.

As of April 2019, there were 2,673 people awaiting execution in the U.S. Today, states no longer kill by electrocution but lethal injection, which death penalty opponents argue is just as inhuman. The list of death row inmates includes both men and women. Some of them have developmental disabilities and some, like Hinton, just might be innocent. The risk of putting an innocent person to death, Hinton argues, is enough to negate any reasons for keeping the death penalty.

Through Hinton, we come to know people on death row as individuals. This is not to say they are good people, or people who don’t deserve punishment. Hinton befriends an inmate named Henry Hays, an ex-member of the white supremacist Klu Klux Klan. Hays bludgeoned a black teenager to death in one of the last recorded lynchings in the American South. His final words to Hinton, a black man, were “I love you”.

We meet Michael Lindsey, 28, who cried every day in the month leading up to his execution. No one visited Lindsey during that time. As he was being put to death, his fellow inmates pounded on the walls, doors and bars of their cells.

“I made a fist and slammed it against the door of my cell as loud and as long as I could until my hand was red and raw … I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone,” Hinton writes.

In the end, The Sun Does Shine is about the triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable adversity and of hope over hate. Hinton is in this sense a modern-day prophet. He writes of how he overcame the hatred he began to feel for his prosecutors and the judge at his trial.

“We are all God’s children and the world belongs to all of us,” he writes. “I know the sun will never refuse to shine. We may not see it, but I know it’s there. I’m not going to have hate in my heart. I spent some dark years here with nothing but hate in my heart. I can’t live like that.”

The Afterword of Hinton’s book is as compelling as his story. It lists the names by state of every person on death row. Hinton argues that as many as one in ten of these inmates might be wrongly accused.

“Read the names aloud,” he urges. “Each has a family, a story, a series of choices and events that have led to a life spent in a cage … Can we judge who deserves to live and who deserves to die? Do we have that right … when we know that we are often wrong?” Finally, he asks us to pray for each of these individuals.

Many such passages in The Sun Does Shine will cause a reader to pause, and for a long while, to ponder.

Judith Valente

Judith Valente is an American broadcast and print journalist, and author, most recently of “How To Live: What The Rule of St Benedict Teaches Us About Happiness, Meaning and Community” (available in the US now and the UK via William Collins on October 22). She lives in Normal, Illinois, and is an Oblate of Mount St Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. Her website is www.judithvalente.com

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