Ana Kraljevic Law Firm

ak-4

Bryan Stevenson, Civil Rights Attorney and Author of Just Mercy

Lawyer in focus

I have decided to do a series of posts that highlight and honour lawyers who I admire and who continue to do amazing work to advance the causes that inspire them. 

The first lawyer I thought of to feature in this series of posts about acclaimed lawyers is  brilliant social justice lawyer, professor, and New York times best-selling author Bryan Stevenson. Although he is an American lawyer in the field of criminal justice reform, an area outside my scope of practice, I nonetheless look up to him as a lawyer because of his achievements, his exemplary professionalism, and his incredible dedication to his clients. His book, Just Mercy, which chronicles his journey from an idealistic student-of-law to experienced trial attorney is replete with examples of how he went above and beyond to serve and represent his clients. The vast majority of them were racialized and poor, with the odds stacked against them, having lost appeal after appeal after previous lawyers had failed to mount a proper defence. What became clear as I read about his client’s ordeals through the justice system and the nature of the cases he chose to take on, was that this was not just a job for Stevenson, it was truly his calling. Stevenson was literally tasked with saving his client’s lives as his practice began to focus on death row clients, many of whom had looming execution dates and no other lawyer available or willing to take their case. For many of them, Bryan Stevenson was their last and only hope. He never married or had any children as his career as his life’s work consumed him and left little time for anything else. He has been hailed as America’s Mandela for dedicating his life towards saving the lives of the incarcerated, courageously fighting for hope, freedom, and redemption. 

Education and professional background

Bryan Stevenson obtained a dual degree in law and public policy with Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government after graduating with an undergraduate degree in philosophy. He found the environment at Harvard Law School to be intimidating and out-of-touch with the race and poverty issues that motivated him to study law. Fortunately, however, he soon found his way by enrolling in a one-month internship on race and poverty litigation taught by a law professor who had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The course required him to spend a few weeks working with the grass-roots Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. It was an auspicious step for the young law student and shaped the trajectory of his future legal career. There he met Steven Bright, senior lawyer and director of the SPDC. The mission of the SPDC was to assist condemned people on death row in Georgia. Stevenson immediately felt a connection with the charismatic lawyer who aptly told him that capital punishment meant “them without the capital get the punishment.” These words would prove prophetic as Stevenson would soon learn that those on death row were almost without exception uneducated and indigent. By choosing this subset of the population as his clientele, the young lawyer was face-to-face with a silent epidemic in Alabama of nearly a hundred people on death row, a rapidly growing condemned population, and no public defender system to come to their aid. Bryan Stevenson’s proximity to the problem, a theme that he drives home in his talks as a guest speaker in roundtable panels, was truly the sine que non to understanding the institutional causes of the blights on the criminal justice system: mass incarceration, excessive and unconstitutional punishment, and a dearth of legal counsel.  

Today Bryan Stevenson is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He is also a professor of law at New York University Law School. He has won unprecedented judgments in his career where he has helped the poor and incarcerated to avoid unjust punishment, exonerated innocent death row prisoners, and defended children prosecuted as adults. On May 17, 2020, Stevenson won a historic ruling in Graham v. Florida that made unconstitutional mandatory life without parole for all children seventeen and younger. He has received numerous accolades such as the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. 

JUST MERCY

I first learned about Bryan Stevenson when I read his book Just Mercy (which I devoured within a couple days being unable to put it down). I found it remarkable how he managed to persevere in fighting for the rights of his clients after receiving so many crushing blows in cases where he seemed certain to win given the holes, weaknesses, and, at times, utter fabrications barely holding the state’s case together. He described judgments that were issued which completely overlooked key evidence such as in his appeal of the Walter McMillian, the case which takes centre stage in the book. Stevenson carefully detailed the legal saga of McMillian, an innocent black man sentenced to death row after being convicted of killing a white woman who was highly regarded in the racially divided community. As Stevenson investigated the case, it soon began to unravel: McMillian had an alibi corroborated by a dozen witnesses which placed him at a church fish fry away from the scene of the murder and he discovered that descriptions of McMillian’s truck did not match that of the eye-witness testimony at trial. More importantly, there were serious problems with the eyewitness testimony of the state’s two key witnesses. One of the witnesses who had testified to seeing McMillian’s truck at the scene of the murder was a jailhouse snitch who had received cheques from the Sheriff and had been promised release from jail for charges on burglary in exchange for testifying against McMillian. Stevenson also discovered that city fines and charges against him had also been dismissed (a fact which was not disclosed to his trial attorneys). What was even more corrupt than the bribery by public officials was that the state’s star witness, a convicted felon implicated in another murder and known for telling elaborate lies, had accused McMillian of the murder to deflect attention from his own involvement in the murder of a poor white woman whose death was not being investigated with the same level of scrutiny as the victim in the McMillian case. When police interrogated him as a suspect in this other murder they learned about an interracial affair between McMillian and a white woman. Because the police had no other link between McMillian and the murder aside from the accusations of this clearly non-credible source, prejudice motivated them to new heights of malfeasance. The police made the outrageous suggestion that this witness may have been sexually assaulted by McMillian. This was done as police needed a pretext to arrest McMillian while they built their case against him. The police were under intense criticism and backlash from the community for not coming up with a suspect in the seemingly unsolvable murder. At that time, Alabama law had outlawed nonprocreative sex and so police arrested McMillian on sodomy charges. 

In summary, the state’s case was pieced together with fraudulent and inconsistent eye-witness testimony and was so weak as to be altogether non-existent. McMillian’s implication in the murder defied all logic and reason and constituted a tragic miscarriage of justice that Stevenson sought to undo through persistence and hard work. Yet, despite conducting a thorough investigation to marshal all of the evidence, raising points in issue that showed that the state’s key witness had been coerced into accusing McMillian of the murder by threat of the death penalty in another case. Even though the witness later recanted his trial testimony and even before that told the sheriff and police investigators that his allegations were false, the judge dismissed this evidence altogether and denied the appeal.  

McMillian was eventually acquitted in February 1993 in his fifth appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. 

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS

Stevenson also described his own personal experiences with racism such as one incident where he sat at the table as a defence lawyer prior to the start of a hearing and a judge sternly reprimanded him for sitting at counsel’s table alone, in a suit and tie no less, somehow mistaking him for the accused. Stevenson realized that the unconscious bias deeply ingrained in the judge’s mind absolutely precluded the notion that a black man could be a lawyer advocating for his white accused client. As I read this book it seemed as though the incidents were so backwards that he was recounting experiences from another era. It was sobering to realize that this was just the nineties and early 2000s. 

DRIVING WHILE BLACK AND A LAWYER

Another incident which he details in the book showed how despite being a Harvard Law graduate, his impressive credentials still did not make him immune to racially-motivated police stops and illegal searches. Stevenson describes being held at gun-point by two Atlanta police officers who then subjected him to a hostile and illegal search. Once he was no longer in what could have been a life-and-death situation, Stevenson realized that had he not maintained his composure the incident could have quickly escalated and possibly become fatal. 

As I read about this incident I wondered whether the encounter was not the run-of-the-mill racially motivated stop of just any black man, but a stop to target Stevenson himself because they were personally threatened by his work in fighting against a system of corruption and malfeasance in which they were the key players. The book also recounts an incident where a judge personally and brazenly called Stevenson when he first took on the famous Walter McMillian case and coercively tried to get him to quit the case. Later in the book as the McMillian case progressed and Stevenson was further along in the appeal process, he described receiving bomb threats. His resolve in continuing his work showed a bravery and dedication that came at great personal cost. 

JUSTICE IN SENTENCING AND LEGAL REFORM

While the novel focused on the McMillian case, an innocent man on death row, Bryan Stevenson’s book also incisively delves into and exposes the justice system’s maladroit and oftentimes inhumane manner of dealing with vulnerable offenders. These are accused persons who were factually guilty of the crimes they were punished for and yet had diminished culpability for their acts because they were either underage, suffered from mental illness, or cognitive impairments. Stevenson poignantly describes the execution of Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam War veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder who had unintentionally killed a child by placing a bomb on his ex-girlfriend’s porch intending to save her after it detonated. Richardson’s lawyer failed to present any evidence about his trauma from the war, his military service, his relationship with the victim, or his obsession with his girlfriend. His lawyer spent very little time on the case and the judge quickly condemned Richardson to death. His lawyer was later disbarred for poor performance in other cases.

Stevenson attended the execution and describes how the guards and prison staff showed more kindness to Richardson on his final day on earth than they had ever shown him in all his years in custody. He bitterly wondered how the outcome could have been different if people had just been more caring and more merciful at earlier stages in Richardson’s life: “Where were all of these people when Herbert was three and his mother died? Where were they when he was seven and trying to recover from physical abuse? Where were they when he was a young teen struggling with drugs and alcohol? Where were they when he returned from Vietnam traumatized and disabled?” Why did no one show him mercy at these forks in the road? It highlights that, very often, the real of cause of criminal behaviour all boils down to a lack of mercy. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top