How Does Bryan Stevenson Fight Criminal Injustice?

History may make the bestselling “Just Mercy” author one of the great civil rights leaders of our time.

Whenever young Bryan Stevenson would visit his grandmother, she would hug him so tightly he could barely breathe. When she finally let go, she’d ask if he could still feel her arms around him. If he said yes, she’d let him be. If he said no, she’d squeeze him again. He used to say no a lot because he enjoyed being “wrapped in her formidable arms.”

“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance,” she would tell him. “You have to get close.” 

So he got close to the disadvantaged and the poor, to prisoners, to inmates on death row, to those who could have never dreamed of affording a Harvard-educated attorney to represent them in court systems they felt were rigged against them. By staying close to the marginalized, “I recognized that I had been struggling my whole life with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly.”

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In Stevenson’s youth, Milton was no small town enjoying the gentrification it has experienced over the past 20 years. It was poor and segregated, squarely situated in the dark shadow of America’s racist heritage, as evidenced by the many racialized symbols, such as Confederate flags, on display. His public elementary school was still segregated when he started in 1966. 

As Stevenson learned about America’s racial problems through his experience in Milton, he also discovered something that would stick with him throughout his career: hope. 

“My high school English and drama teacher was an amazing white woman who decided to perform Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful play about race, ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ to a mixed audience. She and many others modeled what communities can do to make progress if they are brave. My work often confronts complex, difficult problems and issues, but it is rooted in a hopefulness that I also saw growing up in Delaware.”

Now, after years of working to change sentences for death row inmates—and other efforts to challenge racial discrimination in the justice system—Stevenson is head of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, where he continues his work on a broad scale.

Over the years he has earned many awards and honors, including the American Bar Association Wisdom Award for Public Service and the ACLU National Medal of Liberty. His New York Times bestseller, “Just Mercy,” was named by Time Magazine as one of 10 best nonfiction books of 2014 and earned the 2015 NAACP Image Award. Also last year, the Delaware Historical Society gave him its annual History Makers Award, an honor bestowed upon such personages as Vice President Joe Biden. 

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“As a young person, I had the privilege of representing Delaware in high school debating and speaking contests, Boys Nation and other activities where youth from Delaware would compete against youth from other states,” Stevenson says. “These competitions reinforced my identity as a Delawarean. I’m really pleased that my home state still claims me as much as I claim it.”

After graduating from Cape Henlopen High School, Stevenson earned a degree in philosophy from Eastern University, then received a full scholarship to Harvard Law School. There, during a month-long intensive on race and poverty litigation taught by an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he became interested in the politics of death row. The course also gave him the opportunity for hands-on training with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta, Georgia. 

While in Atlanta, SPDC’s director Steve Bright taught Stevenson that capital punishment means “them without the capital get the punishment.” That statement planted a seed of conviction in the 23 year-old student. He devoted his life to representing the men, women and, in many cases, children condemned to die.

Stevenson worked with Bright’s organization for several years, until he and Eva Ansley opened a nonprofit law center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1989 to provide free legal services to those on the state’s death row. The center would later come to be called the Equal Justice Initiative, and its impact would be felt around the world.

Under Stevenson, the EJI has won reversals, relief or release for more than 115 wrongly condemned prisoners. Stevenson has also argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including one that resulted in a ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for people 17 or younger are unconstitutional. 

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“Over the last 20 years or so, I’ve come to accept that talking more broadly about the problems of mass incarceration and excessive punishment is critical if we’re going to make progress,” Stevenson says. “Speaking more widely, writing a book and doing more media has been part of an effort to get people to think more carefully about how we treat one another, especially the most vulnerable among us.”

One of Stevenson’s first cases was representing Walter McMillian, whose story takes place in Monroe County, the setting of Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” McMillian wasn’t familiar with “Mockingbird” when he met his attorney, but Stevenson was immediately struck by parallels between McMillian and Tom Robinson, the wrongfully accused black man in Lee’s story. Both men grew up in a poor black settlement outside of Monroeville, and both experienced racist treatment. But unlike Lee’s character, McMillian was declared not guilty and freed. 

The case taught Stevenson “about our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions.” It also taught him something else about the world: “There is light within this darkness.” 

Stevenson is quick to explain bad actions by drawing attention to the contexts in which those actions took root. He believes “the presumption of guilt [has long been] assigned to the poor and people of color.” His courtroom speeches often include details of his defendants’ lives: childhood abuse, mental disorders, broken homes. He believes that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” even those who have killed.

A New York Times review of “Just Mercy,” though mostly positive, noted that Stevenson “has the defense lawyer’s reflex of refusing to acknowledge his clients’ darker motives. A teenager convicted of a double murder by arson is relieved of agency; a man who placed a bomb on his estranged girlfriend’s porch, inadvertently killing her niece, ‘had a big heart.’” At one point in his book, Stevenson describes the moment one of his clients shot and killed someone: “It discharged,” he says of the gun, grammatically absolving his client of taking any action. But Stevenson seems convinced that his clients are fundamentally good. The spin, he suggests, is claiming they aren’t. 

“I believe we can achieve more justice and opportunity if we avoid getting stuck in the politics of fear and anger,” he says.

The honor from the Delaware Historical Society came at a good time, as the death penalty continues to be debated fiercely by lawmakers. In January, the House of Representatives voted against a bill to abolish capital punishment. Ahead of the vote, Stevenson appeared at a press conference at Legislative Hall to urge lawmakers to pass the bill. He pointed out racial disparities in the system of capital punishment, and noted they signal to African American communities “that the lives of some people matter less than others.” 

Those disparities are backed up by a study published in the Iowa Law Review in October 2012, “The Delaware Death Penalty: An Empirical Study.” The authors found that “black defendants who kill white victims are more than six times as likely to receive the death penalty as are black defendants who kill black victims.” 

The death penalty is a civil rights issue, says Rep. Sean Lynn of Dover, prime sponsor of Delaware’s bill to abolish it. “Its application is so fraught with racial bias and prejudice that it cannot ever be constitutionally applied,” he says. Stevenson repeats this claim and supports it with statistics throughout his book.

Delaware is one of 32 states with the death penalty. There are 14 prisoners on Delaware’s death row, and about twice that with pending capital cases. The last execution in the state took place in April 2012, when 28 year-old Shannon Johnson was executed by lethal injection. Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, Delaware has executed 16 people. That number is smaller than Texas’s 536, but it is still higher than in 12 other states.

Those who want Delaware to keep the death penalty cite murders like the grisly killing of Lindsey Bonistall by James E. Cooke, Jr. nine years ago. Cooke was convicted of breaking into Bonistall’s apartment, raping her, strangling her in a bathtub, then setting the house on fire. 

Reactions to such incidents are understandably visceral, but Lynn believes it’s the job of policy makers to set aside the emotional components of the case and to decide what is constitutionally best. “People don’t have enough background information to make sound decisions,” he says. 

Stevenson understands the pain of those who lose family members to senseless murders. When he was a teenager, his grandfather was stabbed to death in his Philadelphia home. “It didn’t seem to matter much to the world outside our family,” he recalls. But there was something about the way he was raised, he says, that wouldn’t let him wish death upon his grandfather’s killers. 

“Because my grandfather was older, his murder seemed particularly cruel,” he says. “But I came from a world where we valued redemption over revenge.” 

Stevenson believes there’s something ennobling about a society that values the redemption of its most marginalized members. “An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation,” he writes in “Just Mercy.” “We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.” 

That is, to him, the crux of the issue with the death penalty. Though debates about capital punishment usually come down to the question of whether or not people deserve to die for their crimes, Stevenson believes the real question is different, more urgent: “Do we deserve to kill?”

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