Well-Being//

How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row

Compassion is a choice.

 Nora Carol Photography/ Getty Images 

The man started crying again and I realized that I was crying too. I sat down on the edge of the bed and I wept silently for a man I didn’t even know, who was most likely a killer, but who also wept in the dark, all alone, in a cage, in Atmore, Alabama. You didn’t have to be on death row to feel all alone, and I knew there were people all over the world, at this exact moment, sitting on the edge of their bed and crying. Most days it seemed like there was more sadness than sense in the world. I sat there for a few more minutes, listening to the other man crying.

Lester had choices and I was glad he was making them. I thought again about all the choices I didn’t have, and about freedom, and then the man stopped crying and there was a silence that was louder than any noise I’d ever heard. What if this man killed himself tonight and I did nothing. Wouldn’t that be a choice?

I was on death row not by my own choice, but I had made the choice to spend the last three years thinking about killing McGregor and thinking about killing myself. Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I may not have had as many choices as Lester had, but I still had some choices I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.

“Hey,” I walked up to my cell door and yelled towards the crying man. “Are you alright over there?”

There was nothing but silence. Maybe I was too late.

“Hey, you okay?” I asked again.

“No,” he finally answered.

“Is something wrong? Do you need me to call for an officer or something?”

“No, he just left.”

“Okay then.”

I stood at the bars. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. It was weird to hear my own voice on the row. I only spoke during visits. I wondered if the man was as surprised as I was to hear me speak. I guess he didn’t want to talk about it. I started to walk back to my bed but then I thought about what he had been saying when he was sobbing. Please help me. I can’t take it anymore.

I walked back up to the door. “Hey man, whatever it is, it’s going to be alright. It’s going to be okay.”

I waited. It had to be another five minutes before he spoke.

“I just…I just got word…that my mom died.”

I could hear him trying to hold back the tears as he talked.

I can’t describe exactly what it is to have your heart break open, but in that moment my heart broke wide open and I wasn’t a convicted killer on death row, I was Anthony Ray Hinton from Praco. I was my mama’s son.

“I’m sorry, man. I really am.”

He didn’t say anything back, and then I heard a guy yell from down below me, “Sorry for your loss.” And then another from the left side of me yelled, “Sorry, man, rest in peace.” Nobody else was talking before that, but they had been listening to. How could you not hear him crying? I didn’t have to think about people all around the world sitting on the edge of their bed and crying, there were almost two hundred men all around me who didn’t sleep. just like me. Who were in fear just like me. Who wept just like all of us. Who felt alone and afraid and without hope.

I had a choice to reach out to these men or to stay in the dark alone. I walked over to my bed and got on my hands and knees. I reached my arm under the bed and felt around through the dust and dirt until the tips of my fingers brushed against my bible. It had been under there for too long. This man had lost his mom, but I still had mine and she wouldn’t care for my bible to be collecting filth. Even here, I could still be me. I walked back up to the cell door.

“Listen,” I yelled. “God may sit high, but he looks low. He’s looking down here in the pit. He’s sitting high, but he’s looking low. You’ve got to believe it.” I had to believe it too.

I heard an Amen from somewhere on the row.

“It’s a hard loss to bear. But your mom’s looking down on you too.”

“I know. Thanks.”

I asked him to tell me about his mom and listened for the next two hours as he told story after story. His mom seemed a lot like my mom. Tough, but full of love.

He finished telling a story about her making a dress for his sister out of a table cloth and two silk pillow cases just so she could go to a school dance in a new dress. “It was beautiful,” he said. “My sister looked better than any other girl at that dance because my mom worked hard. She always found a way, man. She always found a way.”

He started crying again, but softer than he had at the beginning of the night.

I wondered why is it that the cries of another human being—whether it’s a baby or a woman in grief or a man in pain—can touch us in ways we don’t expect. I wasn’t expecting to have my heart break tonight. I wasn’t expecting to end three years of silence. It was a revelation to realize that I wasn’t the only man on death row. I was born with the same gift from God we are all born with—the impulse to reach out and lessen the suffering of another human being. It was a gift and we each had a choice whether to use this gift or not.

I didn’t know his story or what he had done or anything about him that made him different from me—hell, I didn’t know if he was black or white. But on the row, I realized, it didn’t matter. When you are trying to survive, the superficial things don’t matter any more. When you are hanging at the end of your rope, does it really matter what color the hand is that reaches up to help you? What I knew was that he loved his mother just like I loved my mother. I could understand his pain.

“I’m sorry you lost your mom, but man, you got to look at this a different way. Now you have someone in heaven who’s going to argue your case before God.”

It was silent for a few moments, and then the most amazing thing happened. On a dark night, in what must surely be the most desolate and dehumanizing place on earth, a man laughed. A real laugh. And with that laughter I realized that the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity. And they most certainly couldn’t steal my sense of humor. I missed my family. I missed Lester. But sometimes you have to make family where you find family or you die in isolation. I wasn’t ready to die. I wasn’t going to make it that easy on them. I was going to find another way to do my time. Whatever time I had left.

Everything, I realized, is a choice.

And spending your days waiting to die is no way to live.

THE SUN DOES SHINE: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin. Copyright © 2018 by Anthony Ray Hinton. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Press

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