Thursday, July 9, 2015

For once, the term “hero” actually fits!

Wetend to bandy about the word “hero” a lot these days. Anyone from a winning athlete to the neighbor who rescues a cat from a tree is a “hero.” It cheapens the currency so I am happy to announce that Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, is the real deal. A real, genuine, 100% hero.  No less an authority than Desmond Tutu calls him “America's young Nelson Mandela.”

The great-grandson of slaves, Stevenson grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware. His father worked in a food factory and cleaned beach cottages and rentals on the weekends. His mother had a civilian job at an Air Force Base. Against these odds,
Stevenson graduated from Eastern College near Philadelphia and then from Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

While at Harvard, he interned at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) and found his calling. After several years there, he founded and is the Executive Director of, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama. Since it was founded, EJI has saved 115 death row prisoners from execution.

His book, Just Mercy, is framed with the story of one such prisoner, Walter McMillian, who spent six years on death row for a crime he did not commit. In 1986, McMillian was an African-American man who lived in Monroeville, Alabama – the town made famous by Harper Lee with a courthouse in which a good deal of the movie was filmed. He had his own logging business and no criminal record except for a misdemeanor resulting from a youthful bar fight. He was married and had a large extended family. However, he was also violating one of the “sacred” taboos: he was having an affair with a white woman.

A young white woman, Ronda Morrison, was murdered in a dry cleaning store and the town was anxious and angry that no one had been arrested. After eight months, one Ralph Myers was arrested in connection with another case and, after a week of interrogation, accused McMillian of the Morrison murder.

McMillian had dozens of witnesses that put him at home that day. His family and members of his church were conducting a very large fish fry in his front yard, selling fish sandwiches to passers-by to raise money for the church. One of the customers was even a law enforcement officer.

Nonetheless, McMillian was arrested by Sheriff Thomas Tate and, in an extraordinary move, placed on Death Row in a State Prison before he was even tried. The trial judge, Hon. Robert E. Lee Key, then moved the trial from Monroe County, which is 40% black to Baldwin County which is only 13% black.

The prosecution called three witnesses: Myers testified that McMillian asked him to drive him to the cleaning store where, he claimed, he witnessed the murder. A second witness claimed to have seen McMillian’s “low rider” truck at the scene and a third witness also implicated him. After a one and a half day trial, he was convicted. The jury sentenced him to life in prison without parole but the judge overrode their decision (as permitted by Alabama law) and sentenced McMillian to death in the electric chair.

Bryan Stevenson and his team took on the case. Soon after he agreed to represent McMillian, Stevenson got a call from Judge Robert E. Lee Key himself who warned him off the case and strongly suggested “you just go ahead and withdraw.”

Walter McMillian at his family’s home the day of
his release.
Stevenson didn’t and, with the help of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, was able to show that every element of the prosecution’s case was untrue. All three witnesses recanted, testifying that they had been bullied into making their statements by law enforcement officers. Amazingly enough, some of those sessions had actually been tape recorded. Exculpatory evidence was withheld, including the fact that Myers avoided a capital murder charge by testifying against McMillian and that other witnesses were paid thousands of dollars for their false testimony. After applying to court after court, Stevenson finally won an order for a new trial. By that time, Judge Key had retired and there was a new prosecutor who joined in the application to dismiss the charges against McMillan and free him.

Sheriff Tate, however, was re-elected again and again and was still the sheriff of Monroe County at the time of the book’s publication in 2014.

While continuing to work for prisoners on death row, the Equal Justice Initiative turned its attention to mandatory life sentences for children. Stevenson won a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life without parole if they are 17 or younger and have not committed murder. Prisoners in many states are eligible to be paroled under this holding but each case must be pursued separately. After he gave a TED talk on the subject, one million dollars was raised for this work.

The cases Stevenson describes are often heart-breaking and the statistics are sobering. Much work remains to be done and we need more men – more heroes – like Stevenson to do it.

Just Mercy was awarded the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction by the American Library Association last month.

In 1995, Bryan Stevenson was awarded a MacArthur Prize which he donated to the EJI. He is also a 1989 recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award, the 1991 ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and in 1996, was named the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers. In 2000, Stevenson received the Olaf Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden for international human rights and in 2004, he received the Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Lawyer for the People Award from the National Lawyers Guild. In 2006, NYU (where he is a professor of law) presented Mr. Stevenson with its Distinguished Teaching Award. He has received honorary degrees from several universities, including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Georgetown University School of Law. Stevenson has also published several widely disseminated manuals on capital litigation and written extensively on criminal justice, capital punishment and civil rights issues.

For more information on the Equal Justice Initiative and its work, see

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