U.S. criminal justice sometimes seems more criminal than just — replete with error, malfeasance, racism and cruel, if not unusual, punishment, coupled with stubborn resistance to reform and failure to learn even from its most-glaring mistakes. And nowhere, let us pray, are matters worse than in the hard Heart of Dixie, aka Alabama, the adopted stomping ground of Bryan Stevenson, champion of the damned.
Stevenson, the visionary founder and executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, surely has done as much as any other living American to vindicate the innocent and temper justice with mercy for the guilty — efforts that have brought him, among myriad honors, a MacArthur genius grant and honorary degrees from Yale, Penn and Georgetown. Now 54, Stevenson has made his latest contribution to criminal justice in the form of an inspiring memoir entitled Just Mercy.`
Just Mercy is an easy read, a work of style, substance and clarity. Mixing commentary and reportage, he adroitly juxtaposes triumph and failure, neither of which is in short supply, against an unfolding backdrop of the saga of Walter McMillian, an innocent black Alabaman sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman.
Stevenson is something of an enigma. A lifelong bachelor, seemingly married to his work, he grew up in a working-class African-American family in southern Delaware. Born five years after Brown v. Board of Education, he endured the indignities of the vestiges of Jim Crow. That, of course, might have set him on a course to champion the downtrodden.
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When he was 16, however, his 86-year-old grandfather was murdered by adolescent marauders bent on nothing more than stealing the elderly man’s black-and-white TV. The trauma surrounding the senseless tragedy — occurring as it did in the wake of racially coded political rhetoric about crime — might have turned a lesser person into a reactionary zealot, but Stevenson took a higher road. Within a decade, as a newly minted lawyer, he forsook the wealth that was virtually guaranteed by his degrees from Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, taking what amounted to a vow of poverty to pursue civil rights law in the South. He began at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, before moving to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Initiative.
Thirty years on, he has won relief for scores of condemned prisoners; exonerated a number of innocent ones; fought to end the death penalty and life sentences without parole for juveniles; and confronted, with admirable albeit limited success, abuse of the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped and children in prison.
Of all the victories, Stevenson clearly takes the greatest satisfaction in the exoneration of McMillian, whose case played out in Monroeville, Alabama, a town immortalized by Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian’s conviction rested on testimony so preposterous that it’s astonishing anyone could have believed it, especially in the face of six alibi witnesses, including a police officer, who placed him at a fish fry 11 miles from the scene of the crime when it occurred.
The prosecution sponsored two key witnesses, both of whom lied and one of whom complained in a tape-recorded pretrial interview withheld from the defense that he was being coerced to lie. The other witness, seeking favorable treatment from the prosecution for crimes of his own, testified that he’d seen McMillian’s low-rider truck near the crime scene. But McMillian had not modified his truck into a low-rider until weeks after the crime.
A jury from which the prosecution had systematically excluded African-Americans found McMillian guilty, but recommended a life sentence, rather than death. In 34 of the 36 states with death penalties then on their books, jury recommendations were binding, the exceptions being Alabama and Florida, where judges were — and still are — empowered to override jury recommendations. That’s what evocatively named Judge Robert E. Lee Key Jr., did in the McMillian case.
McMillian most likely would have been executed had not Stevenson turned to an unconventional court of last resort — 60 Minutes, which in late 1992 aired a devastating segment on the case. Three months later, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals granted McMillian a new trial, and, a few days after that, the prosecution dropped the charges.
Another sweet Stevenson victory grew out of his quest to understand why adolescents, like those who murdered his grandfather, are prone to commit violent acts with senseless, reckless abandon. Stevenson took on the representation of several clients sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. In challenging their sentences, he emphasized, as he puts in is memoir, “the incongruity of not allowing children to smoke, drink, vote … because of their well-recognized lack of maturing and judgment while simultaneously treating some of the most at-risk, neglected, and impaired children exactly the same as full-grown adults in the criminal justice system.”
Thanks in significant part to Stevenson’s brilliance, hard work and dedication to a cause that hasn’t always been popular, the situation in Alabama and across the land is improving. He’s not only a great lawyer; he’s also a gifted writer and storyteller. His memoir should find an avid audience among players in the legal system — jurists, prosecutors, defense lawyers, legislators, academics, journalists — and especially anyone contemplating a career in criminal justice.