Ray Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. With the help of justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson, Ray won his release in 2015. In this episode, Kate and Ray discuss the experience of not being believed, a justice system that works against you because of the color of your skin, and the sustaining power of unconditional love.
CW: incarceration, death penalty, racism
Discussion Questions for this conversation are available, here.
Click here to find Hinton’s book The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.
Hinton can be found on Facebook.
The Equal Justice Initiative features photos of Mr. Hinton’s life and release you must see.
Hinton’s story is featured in the recently released movie, Just Mercy. You can watch Just Mercy here.
The Sun Does Shine is our July book club pick. Access videos and discussion questions by clicking here.
Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative stepped in and changed Hinton’s life. Find out more about Stevenson, EJI, and the work they do here.
Plus, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is a must-read.
At the end of the episode I reference a quote by Thomas Merton. It is from a letter he wrote to Dorothy Day and says, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always living the plotline of the Bachelorette. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago and I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
Kate Bowler: Sometimes what happens to you is not fair. It’s not fair that you got that diagnosis or that your mom isn’t here to show you the ropes or the insurance company refuses to cover that particular medicine you really need or you’re stuck between the impossible decision about whether or not to send your kid to school in a pandemic. Sometimes life just stacks against us. Today, I wanted to talk to someone who understands the cost of unfairness. He’s been living the nightmare of being unjustly accused and living with the consequences. In nineteen eighty five, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and charged with two capital murders. Crimes he didn’t commit. The supposed murder weapon was his mother’s gun. But the evidence didn’t exist. He was at work miles away at the time of the crime. He passed a polygraph. The bullets were never proven to have come from that gun. But none of it mattered. He was a black man in Alabama. That was his only crime. He was sentenced to death and sat on death row for twenty eight years until Justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative proved his innocence and pushed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States, where his conviction was finally overturned. And on April 3rd, 2015, Ray Hinton was set free. Today, as the Equal Justice Initiatives community educator, Mr. Hinton is a tireless and powerful advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. He is also the author of the gorgeous memoir, and our book club pick, the Sun Does Shine. Mr. Hinton, I am so grateful to be talking with you today.
Ray Hinton: Well, thank you so much and thank you for taking the time to read the book.
K.B.: It’s a witness. It’s just it’s such a witness to humanity. And and your spirit just shines through it so brightly.
R.H.: Thank you. It was the hardest thing I had to do when I got back home.
K.B.: We talk a lot about befores and afters in this community and the moments that change everything. Would you mind starting back on that day that changed everything for you? It was July, right? Nineteen eighty five.
R.H.: Yes, 1985. I was 29. It was one of the hottest days in Alabama. And just for those of who are listening, if you’re ever thinking about coming to Alabama, don’t come July, it’s too hot. I woke up that morning, with not a care in the world, I just happened to look up, and there was two white gentlemen standing there that I didn’t know. I cut the lawn mower off and I said, Can I help you? And one of them said, We are looking for Anthony Ray Hinton. I said that would be me. How can I help you? He said, well, we are detective from the Birmingham Police Department. We have a warrant for your arrest. And I said, for what? He said, we’ll explain it to you later, but right now we want you to put your hands behind your back. I did that, they put the handcuffs on me and I said, at least allow me to go in the house and tell my mother I’m being arrested for something and the police said we can’t let you go back inside and we argue for about two minutes. And finally, the other detective said, let him go in and tell his mother. And I went in and just showed my mother the handcuffs. And like any good mother, she went to screaming and hollering, what are those handcuffs doing on my baby? And I thought, whatever they tell me I’d be able to show them that I’m not the person whoever they thought had done it. And so on our way to the jail, I asked these detectives, Why am I being arrested? And they would never say anything. And as they drove a little farther, I said, detective, why am I being arrested? And it seemed to set the detective off that wasn’t driving. He said, we charging you with first degree robbery, first degree kidnap, first degree attempted murder. I said, oh you got the wrong person, I haven’t done none of that. And he say, I don’t care whether you did or didn’t do, but I will make sure you found guilty of it. I said for for a crime I didn’t commit? He said, you must have a hearing problem. Didn’t I tell you I don’t care? And he looked at me. He said, by the way, there’s five things that going to break you. He said, number one, you’re black. Number two a white man is gonna say you shot him. Whether you shot him, I don’t care. He said, number three, you will have a white prosecutor. Number four, you gone have a white judge. And number five, you gone have an all white jury. He said do, you know what that spell? And he repeated the word conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction conviction.
K.B.: So you had no history of violent crime and no real evidence to convict you. The justice system was not on your side. Just not even just not on your side. Actively working against you.
R.H.: Kate, I hate to say it. They had the evidence. The evidence was I was born black and poor. And maybe a lot of people don’t want to hear that. But in the south, that’s a fact.
R.H.: I did everything that I could do to prove my innocence. I took a polygraph tests by an FBI agent. I passed that wasn’t good enough. And when the detective told me the date and time, I said, thank you, God. I was at work at that particular time, in that particular day. I gave him my supervisor’s name, phone number address, and they went. Five hours later, they came back and said your alibi checks out. We no longer will charge you for first degree robbery, first degree kidnap, first degree attempted murder. But we have decided that we’re gonna charge you now with two counts of first degree capital murder. I said but detective, I haven’t killed any one. He said, do you remember me telling you on the way here I didn’t care? He said this same thing apply. I don’t care. I tried to talk to this detective and convince him that I was no killer. That detectives looked at me and he said, let me be honest with you. I don’t believe you did it. But since ya’ll is always taken up for one another, take this rap for your homeboy. Who truly did it. And with tears coming down, my face, I said detective, there is not a homeboy in this world that I would take a rap for like this.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah.
R.H.: And on December the seventeen nineteen eighty six, the Judge said, Anthony Ray Hinton, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers and it is the order of this court, I sentence you to death. May God have mercy on your soul. And that’s where I went for the next 30 years. It’s like, how do this happen?
R.H.: I don’t bother, nobody, I go to church, I treat human beings with love, respect, kindness. Why me? And I wouldn’t question the authority. I will question God, why me?
K.B.: Yeah. I do wish, though, that there was a special word for that kind of betrayal, though. Like when systems.
K.B.: Who are supposed to shelter you, are the ones that are doing you harm.
R.H.: Yes. Kate, in my wildest dreams, did I think that I would be convicted and it would be 30 years before I see home again.
K.B.: Unreal. For three years, you didn’t utter a single word to another person, but you broke that silence when you heard another inmate crying. What happened?
R.H.: Believe it or not, I did my 30 years and the first three years, I had a pity party. I was blaming the world for where I was. I couldn’t get over how an innocent man could be put on death row for a crime, the authorities knew that I didn’t commit. Kate, there was no one I was more mad with than I was with God. I couldn’t understand because my mother brought me up to believe in God, to trust God. And she told me that all I had to do was to have faith. Well, when I got arrested and got tried and when that Judge said, I sentence you to death, I began to say where was you God? When I was being lied on, when I was being prosecuted for a crime that you know and I know that I didn’t commit.
R.H.: I was so angry with God that I said that God don’t live inside of me anymore. It’s like when your husband or your child or somebody do something to you. You angry with them but you still love them.
K.B.: Yeah. You betrayed me.
R.H.: Absolutely. And so for three years I sit there with this anger for God. Questioning him. Why did you allow this to happen? My mother told me that you can do everything but fail. And I believed in you. I still believe in you. But I wanted to know, what did I do so bad that you would allow me to come here? And I promise you this. Going into the fourth year, it’s like I woke up to the sound of a grown man crying, not knowing what he was crying about. But my mother had taught me compassion. And my mother told me, no matter what one does in life, he or she still deserve compassion. I got out of that bed and I said, Sir, is something wrong? Took him a while to talk to me. You see, this is a man that I had lived by for three years. Never asked him his name, where he was from, I just didn’t care. I was angry. And finally, he said no, I just got word my mother passed. I told him how sorry I was. I told him if I could do anything, please let me know. I sat back on that bunk bed. And I realized I was alive. My mother was alive. You see, I want people to realize that we tends to think we got it hard. But there’s some people that have it worse than you. And I’ve been a man of faith have realized, instead of complaining, I need to tell God thank you more. And that’s how I did my years there on death row. I didn’t think about Anthony Ray Hinton. Not one more day. I’ve always put myself in the need of serving others. And I often say, if you think about helping someone else. When you realize another day is gone and you haven’t had time to think about your problem. And that’s how I did my years.
K.B.: Yeah, it sounds like you were you had three years in which you were silent and then it sounds like when that man started crying that you were just broken open by compassion.
K.B.: I didn’t realize that compassion can be a lifeboat. Do you know what I mean? It felt like it was just more people to care about. And I had lots of things to care about. The tenderness with which you keep your heart tender. It’s like you understand that part of the job of being human is just the hard work of keeping it soft. When there was so much that you were surrounded with that was inhumane, feels like it’s not a big enough word. During your time there. fifty four men were put to death by the state and 22 others died by suicide. I wish people knew, I wish people knew that about what it means to be human. We can’t live in cages. We can’t live so close to the edge of death. It just eats us alive.
R.H.: Absolutely. I watched people pass right mind by myself. And I kept wondering. What is they going through what, what, what, what, what is their mindset? And I asked myself what would I be thinking? What would I be doing or if it was me?
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
R.H.: But see, every time one pass by, I told myself: God needed another angel tonight. And he sent it for one. Because of what they may have done, I still believe that God has use for every creature that he created.
K.B.: Yes, that’s right.
R.H.: Only man look at what you done. I truly believe with every fiber in my being, that everyone of us if it was a test, all of us have failed the test of God. How the Bible that I read says, he is here without sin, let him cast the first stone. So I can’t look at you and condemn you unless I condemn myself. But I prayed for those men that went to their death that way. And everytime one would be executed, a little part of me was executed as well. Because there’s no way I believe I can be a good human being and not feel the hurt of the pain of another human being. And so I would sit there. And I would say, God if it’s your will, I ask you at this moment, to give them the strength to let them know that even before they was born, you had already given us a beginning date and end date. This is the end. It’s just how one look at their. When my mom passed, and that was the hurt of my my life but I realized something. I had to tell myself my mother is not in pain anymore. My mother, lived to see 85. You see, I thought of all the good things. I thought about how she had unconditional love for me. I thought about how she brought me up to love those that don’t love me. I thought about how she told me that I am responsible to love, those that don’t love me.
K.B.: You are trained up in love. That is a powerful, that’s a powerful mom.
R.H.: Oh. Kate, if I had one wish, I would wish that every child in the world, could have a mother like mine. And right now, today, I can’t tell you one person I have hate for. Not one, not even the men that did this to me simply because I was born black. I love them because I know how to love them.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah. You’re embodying a type of forgiveness that a lot of people wouldn’t understand. Like, what does what does forgiveness mean to you?
R.H.: Of all the things, I’m selfish, and I think you have to be selfish in order to forgive because forgiveness, it’s not about the other person. Forgiveness is about you. I can’t be happy unless I forgive. And I would never give anyone that much power over me, if you want to be free, you have to, forgive. And I wanted to be free. I can’t tell you how bad and how good it feels to be free.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah.
R.H.: And I’m not talking about all this freedom to go where you want. I’m talking about freedom inside.
K.B.: That you set yourself free with love.
K.B.: That’s it.
R.H.: I lay down at night, I don’t have an enemy list. I wake up with a smile. Even when, I’ve been done wrong. I pray, Lord, forgive them, they don’t realize, who is my Father.
K.B.: Yeah, that deep freedom is also a gift that your book has this gorgeous account of also just giving that, that freedom to others by being a witness to their life.
K.B.: You did something for a prisoner named Michael Lindsay that brought me to tears. You and all the other prisoners decided to let him know in the moments leading up to his death that he was not alone, that he was still beloved in whatever way you could give him. Can you tell me what happened?
R.H.: Well, you know, Michael Lindsay was born and that was it. Nobody he felt ever loved him. His parents, no one. And it’s like, he had to come to death row, to experience what true love felt like. And Michael Lindsay wanted a few of us to save his life.
R.H.: And he didn’t realize that we didn’t have the power, nor the authority to save his life. But what we did have, we had the power, the authority, to love him.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah.
R.H.: So we gave it to him honestly and boldy. We let him know before he left this world you love and you love unconditionally.
R.H.: Can you imagine all your life, you never felt love? And all of a sudden, not only do you feel it, you see it.
K.B.: And you could hear it. You all banged on whatever you could to make all the noise you could where he was being put to death, he could hear your love.
R.H.: He could hear it and believe it or not, he was smiling and we wanted him and the rest of those that was executed, to know one thing. We still with you, we still love you.
R.H.: There’s an old saying I love to say. And I’m going to tell you Kate, may you live to be a hundred years old, and may the last voice you hear, be mine. We wanted Michael to hear our love on the bars. That’s why we beat it. We wanted him to hear that last sound. And we wanted him to leave this world with a smile. Unconditional love.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are a lot of people in our community who are suffering and they are hanging on for dear life to friends to get them through. You have one of those friends, Lester. Tell me about what Lester’s friendship meant to you.
R.H.: Now you’re going to make me cry.
K.B.: He sounds amazing.
R.H.: Lester is a one of a kind. Lester and I got to know each other. He was four. I was six. And our mother made us go out and play. And for the next sixty two years, Lester and I have been the best of friends. Lester gave me for 30 years of unconditional love. Drove three hours, one way every Friday. He got off work that Friday morning, got in his car, drove three hours. Now, he could easily say, I’ve worked all night and I’m tired. But he didn’t. Lester got to the prison so regularly, they would hold up until he got there. Lester and I to some people, it’s like peanut butter and jelly. He’d be in the jelly, I’ll be the peanut butter.
K.B.: Obviously, obviously, we all have our roles.
R.H.: I’m just so thankful that God brought Lester into my life at four years old. Not knowing that I would need him him in a way like no other way. Yet, you see. The world condemned, the world said I was a killer. The world said this would be a better place if you wasn’t in it. But, Lester. He didn’t see it that way. Lester, wanted me to know that regardless of what the world say, he still loves and he’s still was my friend.
K.B.: Yeah, that’s such a good, that’s such a good definition of friendship. Like the truth of who I am rests in you. And the truth of who you are rests in me. And we’ll hold that for each other. Yeah. Yeah. I love that. You met someone really spectacular, though, that changed the course of your life in nineteen eighty five, you met a man you call God’s best lawyer.
R.H.: Yes mam!
K.B.: Bryan Stevenson. Even when Brian and the Equal Justice Initiative were able to prove that the bullets from the crime didn’t match your mom’s gun, that the state of Alabama was still not interested in reopening your case. You were on death row for another 16 years.
R.H.: Yes mam.
K.B.: That must have been absolutely surreal.
R.H.: It was and Bryan is like my lawyer, my brother and my friend. There’s not a human being that I respect, and love, and care for, like I do, Bryan. Because every day, I see the love that he had for us.
K.B.: Yeah. Yeah.
R.H.: I’ve had the privilege for years to watch this man go up against the worst ours. But he don’t let that stop him. And I often wonder, if every lawyer, would give their clients, their all like Bryan, the system, I do believe would be better.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah.
R.H.: Look at all the things that happened, and I ended up with God’s number one lawyer? Tell me, God is not good.
K.B.: All the time, all the time. I love that. I love, I love that he, I love that he pled your case with with power and with conviction. And I love too that like, if we’re just if we’re using the courthouse as also like a way of life. You have been an amazing witness for what is true and what is what points to the way of love. And like, you just never stopped testifying on your behalf and on behalf of all those who are who are unfairly condemned and and not even just like, you know, we have to separate the bad from the good, but that this is a system that that is so inhumane that it doesn’t make a difference, that we as people are not meant to live on the edge of death with such callousness to who we are.
K.B.: After the Supreme Court overturned your conviction unanimously, all charges were dropped. So on April 3rd, 2015, after spending 30 years in jail. Twenty eight on death row. You are a free man. Tell me your first words when you came out?
R.H.: The first words were: The sun does shine. I looked up, and I saw the brightest sun that I had ever seen in my life. And I remember looking over to my friend Lestor and Bryan to see was the sun shining on them. And it didn’t appear to be shining on nobody but me. Although I had been in darkness for 30 years.
R.H.: But I was witness that the sun does shine. And that feeling of being free, is priceless. Knowing that I held my head up high. Knowing that my best friend stuck by me, knowing that my mother had died, but yet she’d live in me. I didn’t have nothing but happiness. You did 30 years? Didn’t matter. What mattered was now. April the 3rd at nine thirty, I walked through those door, a free man. And I thought of the words of Martin Luther King and those words, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I’m free at last.
K.B.: Yes. Yes. Mr. Hinton, it is my prayer that people will understand not just the truth of your life, which was true all along, but the truth of the systems that unfairly put you there. And I’m so grateful for the work that you do in doing the hard work of sharing your story, but also in in calling us to a to a truer self, a truer, a more just society.
R.H.: We need that.
K.B.: One of the most powerful things about Ray’s commitment to justice is that it does two things at once. It condemns the unfair systems that distort the truth. He was innocent in a society that pronounced him guilty because of the color of his skin. But Ray also pronounced his own verdict on all humanity. We are all worthy. The good and the bad among us, the criminals and the saints, the deserving and the undeserving. Even in the midst of the most profound kinds of unfairness, he never lost sight of something true about himself and other people. We all hunger and need to be loved. We need to be forgiven. We need to have those who show up every week to talk about everything and nothing. Our fundamental humanity is never in question. No matter what we’ve done. Structurally, we must work towards systems which do the hard work of perfect justice. But personally, spiritually, individually, we must walk the path that Ray’s been walking. In the words of the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton: Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business. And in fact, it’s nobody’s business. What we’re asked to do is love. And this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge thank you to my team. Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. Don’t miss an episode, be sure to subscribe to Everything Happens wherever you listen to podcasts. And I’d love to hear from you. Find me online at KateCBowler or at Katebowler.com. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.
One thought on “The Sun Does Shine”
Hey, I’ve just discovered your podcasts, and am sorta binge-listening while I am putting in time, waiting to visit my husband in hospital in a city that is far from home, as he recovers from a liver transplant–a definite combination of “Yaa!” and deep breaths needed, esp with the overlay of COVID concerns and restrictions.
ANYway, just wanted to touch base and thank you–I love your approach, the way you are able to draw people out, authentically engage in the conversation (unlike a news journalist who needs to remove themselves from the dialogue) without pushing or shaping their offering to fit a pre-made agenda of your own…love your warmth, and your laugh makes me smile every time!
I’m a detail person, so I noticed this, and sorry it’s picky–I just thought you might like to know: when you insert an ad for ShipStation, it includes the name of maybe the original interview you did it for–which is no longer the person you’re talking to! A bit disorienting for a new listener =)
Take good care–looking forward to hearing more of the places your curiousity and heart take you…