The ACLU of Massachusetts honored visionary social justice advocate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson at our 2016 Bill of Rights Dinner on May 31. Bill Newman, director of our Western Massachusetts Legal Office, met the civil rights hero in 1986.
I want to share with you a story about compassion and courage, life and death, despair and jubilation. I want to tell you about Bryan Stevenson.
In 1986, I traveled to Georgia to meet Stevenson, an African-American attorney who grew up in the 1960s in the segregated, Confederate flag-displaying eastern shore of Maryland. He and I were representing a young man on Georgia's death row. I had not previously worked on a capital case. In contrast, most of Bryan's clients were on the row.
When I arrived at his office address, I found no sign, no lights, and the door dead-bolted. The reason for the anonymity, I would soon learn, was bomb threats directed at him and his colleagues at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee.
That week, Bryan and I spent a day combing through boxes of exhibits in a back room of the clerk's office in the courthouse where our client's trial had been held. We also interviewed local witnesses and visited the scene of the crime.
As twilight approached and we headed back to Atlanta, a three- or four-hour drive through largely deserted swaths of south Georgia, I commented on the large white American car tailing us. In as lighthearted a tone as I could muster, I asked Bryan what the odds were that we were about to die.
He responded, "Really, Bill. I don't think the odds are that high." He kept a straight face.
I then reminded Bryan that I lived in Northampton, where if we have two OUIs on a Friday night we consider it a crime spree, and when I ask him about the odds that we're about to die, he's got to do better than "not too high." We shared a big laugh.
But after the car behind us turned off the highway, I asked him seriously whether his work ever made him afraid. He described driving to a small rural town to meet a newly charged Black murder client, past a hand-scrawled sign that said "Welcome to Klan Country."
Just Mercy, Stevenson's exquisitely written memoir and exposé, uses as its lodestar the story of his death-row client Walter McMillian. Mr. McMillian was convicted of murder and sentenced to die even though he had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. Many factors contributed to this travesty—a mediocre at best trial attorney, police perjury, coercion of witnesses, the jury's racism, and the venality and dishonesty of both prosecutors and judges.
Stevenson, who founded and directs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, does more than win freedom, life, new trials, and shorter sentences for people sentenced to die—a result he has achieved over 100 times. Those victories include the vindication and release of Walter McMillian after 10 years on death row. (In our case, with Greenfield attorney Buz Eisenberg having later joined our defense team, the death sentence was converted to life with the possibility of parole.) But there's way more.
Stevenson's arguments before the United States Supreme Court have stopped courts from imposing automatic life-without-parole sentences on kids; proven to the high court's satisfaction ineffective assistance of trial counsel; and forged a way to challenge particularly heinous methods of execution. His successes have been extraordinary.
Please allow me this reflection: I don't have many heroes. Generally speaking, for me, people are too flawed to enshrine them in my mind with that moniker. But one exception is Nelson Mandela—and Nobel Prize laureate Desmond Tutu describes Bryan Stevenson as "America's young Nelson Mandela."
I agree. For me, Bryan Stevenson is a hero.
Another personal note: I don't cry often, but Just Mercy made me cry. The stories of botched executions, of abused and beaten children prosecuted as adults and condemned to die, of Vietnam vets whose bodies and minds were mangled in the jungles of Southeast Asia—these stories are that compelling.
In his introduction, Stevenson writes that we must measure our society's commitment to fairness and equality not by how we treat the powerful and privileged but rather by how we treat "the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned." Ultimately, Just Mercy is not about Stevenson, his colleagues, his clients, or his adversaries. It's about us. It's about how anger and fear can make us so vindictive and unjust that we all suffer from the absence of mercy. As Bryan writes, "The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more...we all need mercy [and] justice, and—perhaps—some measure of unmerited grace."