In speech after speech, in interviews, in his recent memoir, “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson offers what has become his mantra: It is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent when charged with a serious crime in America.
For the past 16 years, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has lived the “textbook example” of that, representing condemned killer Anthony Ray Hinton who was confined to Alabama’s Death Row for almost 30 years.
“If you wanted a case to support that point, there is no question Anthony Ray Hinton’s case is that case,” says Stevenson, who is the keynote speaker at the Elevate conference in Birmingham on June 12 for nonprofit groups that receive funding from the Alabama Power Foundation “Had he had the experts we presented when we got to court years later available to him at trial, I’m not even sure the case would have gone to trial.”
Hinton’s jury never would have convicted a person of means, such as a corporate executive, of the crime, Stevenson says. The attorney believes race also played a role in the conviction of Hinton, who is African-American. One of the police officers said he knew a black person had committed the crime. The prosecutor said he could look at Hinton and know that he was evil. Plus, too many people have a presumption of guilt rather than innocence for someone who is black and poor, Stevenson says.
Hinton gained his freedom in April after state prosecutors in Jefferson County chose not to retry him for two murders of which he was convicted in 1985. New testing on the gun taken from Hinton’s mother’s house couldn’t match the bullets recovered from the crime scenes to the gun.
Hinton calls Stevenson “the best lawyer in the world.”
A record of reversals
Stevenson has devoted his legal career to defending the poor, the imprisoned and the condemned – usually people of color who he says haven’t received justice. He has achieved significant success.
Hinton is Stevenson’s second client to leave Alabama’s Death Row alive. Stevenson’s biography on EJI’s website says he and his staff “have won reversals, relief or release for over 115 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.”
Stevenson argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that juveniles should not be sentenced to die in prison, and the high court banned life-without-parole sentences for children who commit non-homicide crimes. The court also ruled that life-without-parole sentences for children who are convicted of homicides are no longer mandatory.
The court wrote that because of “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest penalty will be uncommon.”
Stevenson’s success has brought much attention and acclaim.
In 1995, he received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award after his legal work freed Walter McMillian from Alabama’s Death Row.
In a case that drew comparisons to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” McMillian, who is black, was convicted in 1987 of murdering a white clerk in a dry cleaning store in Monroeville. He was found guilty despite a dozen witnesses who testified McMillian was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime.
Stevenson showed the state’s witnesses had lied on the stand and prosecutors had illegally withheld evidence that would have helped McMillian. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the case in 1993 and McMillian was freed after six years on Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit.
Stevenson also has received the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Olaf Palme Prize for international human rights in Stockholm, the Reebok Human Rights Award, the Thurgood Marshall Medal of Justice, and Smithsonian magazine’s American Ingenuity Award among many others. New York University, where he is a professor of law, gave Stevenson its Distinguished Teacher Award.
Stevenson’s TED Talk in 2012 “inspired one of the longest and loudest standing ovations in TED’s history,” according to TED Curator Chris Anderson. Members of the audience pledged more than $1 million to EJI for a campaign to help end the practice of sentencing children as adults to excessive time in adult prisons.
In 2014, the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected Stevenson a member for his accomplishments.
In April, Time magazine named Stevenson one of its 100 Most Influential People, with accompanying text from Serena Williams, the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world.
“For decades, he has dedicated himself to fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal-justice system with the perfect combination of unwavering passion and idealism,” Williams wrote.
All of the honors are nice, Stevenson acknowledges.
“I think in a world where you’re constantly being told no, or people are resisting what you’re saying, this kind of recognition is very affirming and encouraging,” he says. “I’m always appreciative to someone who says … we affirm what you’re doing.”
“So anything that validates the importance of what you’re doing does enhance the work.”
Yet, recognition doesn’t drive Stevenson.
A Life of Purpose
The Delaware native grew up poor in a racially segregated community. His mother went into debt to buy her children Dr. Seuss books and encyclopedias. “It was her priorities for us that really made a profound difference. I look back on that now, and she had to make a choice between how much food to buy and whether to keep buying World Book encyclopedias.”
In his childhood, through college and into his legal career, Stevenson says he was surrounded by people with “purpose-driven lives.” They mentored, modeled and shaped him into pursuing a purpose-driven life and career of his own.
“Doing something purposeful is more attractive than doing something profitable,” Stevenson says. “My happiness quotient, my peace quotient, is going to be higher if I’m engaged in something important, something purposeful.”
The Harvard-trained lawyer acknowledges that he could have attained more wealth and comfort by pursuing a different kind of law.
“Frankly, the work I do is extremely rewarding,” he says. “It’s enormously challenging and there are a lot of difficult days, but when you walk out of the Jefferson County Jail with Anthony Ray Hinton knowing he’s free after 30 years on Death Row … the sensation and feeling at that moment is priceless. No amount of money can give you that.”
There are other times – when someone is about to be executed or is being tortured by mental health issues and Stevenson can’t give them relief – “that can be exasperating and overwhelming.”
There are many dark days representing clients who are poor, many of whom have mental illnesses and drug addictions and who were abused or neglected as children. Stevenson, though, views such broken humanity in ways different from many people.
An unusual assignment
Stevenson in “Just Mercy” writes of his first Death Row encounter as a 23-year-old law student interning in Atlanta. He was instructed to tell a condemned man he wouldn’t be put to death in the next year.
Nervous and knowing almost nothing about capital punishment, Stevenson struggled telling the news to the Georgia inmate. Yet, Henry ”was happy and relieved,” and the pair relaxed and talked for three hours, far longer than the time they’d been allotted.
An angry guard came into the visitation room, shackled Henry and pushed him toward the door. Henry planted his feet to resist the shoving and in a strong, clear baritone began singing an old hymn Stevenson knew from his church where he grew up.
That encounter changed Stevenson, he says now. “It gave me an awareness that even in circumstances that seemed incredibly uncomfortable, unnerving and challenging, you could have a moment of clarity, insight and even beauty. That was a shock to me,” he says.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect the humanity, dignity and beauty this man represented. It radicalized my interest in the law.”
At that point Stevenson knew without a doubt he wanted to help condemned people and threw himself into understanding the law, which had been “esoteric and disconnected.”
Now, more than three decades later, Stevenson has more time behind him than before him in his career. He says he will continue his work for justice for as long as he is able and is “really excited and energized.”
“I think we’re having a moment where the landscape is more responsive to what we’ve been talking about for a long time,” he says.
Stevenson points to politicians in both parties talking about too many people confined to prison, conservative states such as Nebraska repealing the death penalty, South Carolina banning life-without-parole sentences for children, and the nation’s reaction to police shootings of unarmed black men and boys.
“All of that is a really encouraging sign that we may be able to turn a corner and achieve some lasting improvement,” Stevenson says.
“I really do think we can make a great deal of progress over the next 10, 15 years. I’m really hopeful. It will be really gratifying to say when I can’t work anymore that things have gotten better in tangible, measurable ways.”