Lawyer's memoir ultimately about us, not him

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 Stevenson’s clients were on the row.

When I arrived at his office address, I found no sign and no lights and the door locked, 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.

Stevenson and I spent a day that week combing through boxes of exhibits at 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 were about to head 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 light-hearted a tone as I could muster, I asked Stevenson if he thought we were about to die. He responded that he thought we’d be OK. I then asked whether his work ever made him afraid. He answered by telling me about the time he drove to a small rural town to meet a newly charged black murder client, past a sign with hand-scrawled letters that said, “Welcome to Klan Country.”
In “Just Mercy,” an exquisitely written memoir and exposé, Stevenson uses as a lodestar the story of his post-conviction death row client Walter
McMillian. Shortly after he filed his appearance for McMillian, Judge Robert E. Lee Key telephoned Stevenson to demand that he withdraw from the case.

As Stevenson, in response to the judge’s reasons for that demand, was explaining that he was a member of the Alabama bar, that he would represent McMillian pro bono, and that he wasn’t seeking a court appointment, a dial tone interrupted. The judge had hung up on him. It was Stevenson’s welcome to litigating post-conviction relief claims for inmates on Alabama’s death row.

McMillian had been convicted of murder and sentenced to die even though he had a truthful and ironclad alibi. Many factors contributed to this travesty: mediocre (at best) representation at trial, police perjury and coercion of witnesses, the jury’s racism, and the venality and dishonesty of both prosecutors and judges.

As the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Stevenson does more than achieve relief — win freedom, life, new trials and shorter sentences for people on death row — something he has accomplished more than 100 times.

Those victories include the vindication and release of Walter McMillian after 10 years on the row. In our case, with Greenfield attorney Buz Eisenberg who later joined our defense team, we won in federal court a new penalty phase trial and in state court a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. There is more.

Stevenson’s arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court have stopped courts from imposing automatic life-without-parole sentences on kids for homicides (Miller v. Alabama) and other crimes (see, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida); proven ineffective assistance to the high court’s satisfaction (Hinton v. Alabama); and forged a way to challenge particularly heinous methods of execution (Nelson v. Campbell). His successes are extraordinary.

But as dedicated, knowledgeable, creative and indefatigable as Stevenson is, his high-stakes practice — as it inevitably must — has brought some heartbreak. Some cases, notwithstanding their compelling claims of injustice and constitutional deprivations, cannot be repaired. “Just Mercy” shows how procedural default and ineffective assistance have become leading causes of death in American prisons.

Consider Herbert Richardson, who telephoned Stevenson in July 1989 and explained that he had an execution date but no lawyer. From death row, Richardson said, “Mr. Stevenson, I have 29 days left, and I don’t think I can make it if there is no hope at all.”

Stevenson took the case. He filed motions and petitions and requests for a stay in state and federal courts, including — with some realistic hope of success — at the Supreme Court, but all his pleadings were denied. Shortly before he was executed, Richardson said to Stevenson, “Thank you. I know this isn’t easy for you, either, but I’m grateful to you for standing with me.”

Please allow me this reflection: I don’t have many heroes. Generally speaking, people are too flawed for me to enshrine them with that moniker in my mind. There are, of course, exceptions. One is Nelson Mandela, and Nobel Prize laureate Desmond Tutu describes 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 poor women criminalized when a pregnancy went wrong; of Vietnam vets whose bodies and minds were mangled in the jungles of Southeast Asia — these stories are that compelling.

And Stevenson himself is that compelling. His intellect and humanity, his warmth and grace, his goodness — these qualities make him the person and lawyer that most of us in our very best moments can only aspire to emulate.

In the introduction to “Just Mercy,” Stevenson writes that the law’s commitment to fairness and equality should be measured 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; how anger and fear can make us so vindictive that we all suffer from the absence of mercy.

As Stevenson 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.”

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 Bill Newman is the director of the western regional office of the ACLU of Massachusetts and the author of “When the War Came Home.”

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