The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton – Book Review
Themes: Racism, Criminal Justice, Death Row, Death Penalty
You should read this if: You are, like me, passionate about criminal justice.
I am frankly quite annoyed at this book. Mostly because the subject matter is so important.
Anthony Ray Hinton, known as “Ray,” was wrongly convicted and held by the State of Alabama on death row for nearly thirty years for a crime that he didn’t commit. If that story sounds familiar, if you feel like you’ve heard it before, it’s because chances are, you have. It happens. All the time. There are dozens of Ray Hintons out there. Sitting there, rotting away in jail over things that they didn’t do.
Now, let me state this for the record: the death penalty is most barbaric monstrosity that we, as a society, ever have consented to. This, regardless of guilt. Believing that ‘an eye for an eye’ is a proper way of administrating justice in through the social contract that we all sign with our justice systems is sickening and despicable. In the United States, We The People have killed, and continue to kill hundreds of men in the name of ‘justice,’ every year. Guilty men and yes, innocent men. Because no, our courts are not fool-proof and not everyone has been gifted with Mr Hinton’s strength of character in fighting the deeply unjust system he was confronted with.
Thankfully, in Western Europe (where I live and am from), we have generally done away with this barbarity. Our courts have even concluded that the conditions on death row in the US are so appalling that they constitute an infraction to article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, an article that prohibits torture [Soering v. United Kingdom, 1989]. We thus refuse to extradite anyone who could be subjected to these conditions in the United States. And, that is a good thing.
However, we must not be complacent. Every year, opinion polls still show large numbers of European citizens would be favourable to the reinstatement of the death penalty “in certain cases.” It is always “in certain cases,” as though the alleged barbarity of particular crimes would somehow justify that our society respond with similar measures. We must never become complacent to that line of thinking that tries to sell us vengeance as a form of justice.
Having said that, regarding this particular book, I am annoyed. Because for such an important subject matter, I wish it had been better edited. Truthfully, knowing his life story, the conditions in which he grew up and his general lack of education, you can’t blame Ray for his poor writing style. It is somewhat a given that a book written by him would sport repetitions, approximations, unfortunate word choice, etc. However, it should have been the work of a good editor to turn the man’s prose into, if not gold, at least silver. It is quite sad that this did not happen.
In The Sun Does Shine, Ray Hinton raises very important themes: the systemic racism in American criminal justice and all across the Deep South (the descriptions of scenes from growing up black in Alabama are particularly jarring in that sense), the link that exists between access to justice and poverty, the failings of underfunded legal aid, the living conditions in prison, and so much more. Some events described truly resonated with me. Him and his best friend having to jump in ditches to hide during their youths. The banging against their cell walls for every convict killed. The smell of rotting flesh. His bizarre prison friendship with a former KKK killer. The dedication of Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who finally got him acquitted.
But unfortunately, these points and strong moments get swallowed up in babbling prose. The book, in many instances, loses momentum due to repetitions, poor storytelling and/or phrasing. I found myself skipping whole chunks of pages and chapters to make sense of the narrative. While I appreciate that not everyone has the writing talents of Tara Westover, I am annoyed that such an important story was allowed to be told so poorly. A good editor (or maybe ghostwriter) should have worked with Ray to make the best of it and better drive the points home.
I have to give this only two stars, but it’s with much disappointment and loads of empathy at Ray’s story, regardless. If you’re passionate about criminal justice or interested in the topic of death penalty, I would still strongly recommend reading this – just know that the writing isn’t the best.