With the near-miraculous release of Anthony Ray Hinton from death row on April 3, Bryan Stevenson’s name was in the news again. His Equal Justice Initiative was responsible for proving that Mr. Hinton, imprisoned for 30 years, was innocent.
I bought Mr. Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, shortly after it was released but I didn’t read it right away. I was facing the death of my beloved brother and couldn’t face a discussion of death row issues. Then I learned that Mr. Stevenson had recorded his memoir himself, so I decided to listen to it instead.
Though there is something on almost every one of the nine discs that brought tears, I am so humbled and grateful to Mr. Stevenson for the work that he has been doing for more than 30 years now. With a law degree from Harvard, the world could have been his oyster. Instead, the young African-American idealist who grew up in a poor, segregated rural area of Delaware headed back south to work on behalf of people wrongly or improperly prisoned. He interned for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Georgia and later founded EJI and based it in Montgomery, Alabama.
The memoir mainly recounts the story of Walter McMillian, who was convicted of a murder he did not commit, of someone he didn’t know, on the testimony of another person he didn’t know. Ralph Myers made up his testimony in order to get a lighter sentence for a different murder that he was involved in. He tried to recant his testimony, and for punishment by the state authorities was put into prison. He recanted his recantation, but years later when straight to Mr. Stevenson to tell the truth once and for all.
During the eight years that Mr. McMillian was in prison, Mr. Stevenson had many other, too many other cases that he outlines and updates as the book goes along. He gives us a heart-breaking glimpse into the lives of people on the outskirts of life who have no one to fight for them until Mr. Stevenson and EJI came along. Most, but not all, of them are African-Americans, unsurprisingly. Many of them are children who were tried and convicted as adults and given life sentences or, as Mr. Stevenson calls them, death in prison sentences. Many of them are also developmentally disabled and, while guilty of the crime they were convicted are, are dumped without ceremony and without any accommodations for their disabilities.
One of the tales he tells is of a mentally challenged man who has been in prison since his early teens. His physical condition has deteriorated to the point where he needs a wheelchair. When Mr. Stevenson first comes to visit him, the man is in a cage where, the guard says, all those charged with murder have to be. Mr. Stevenson demands that he be taken out of the wheelchair for the consultation, but the guards can’t get him out of the cage because it is so small and the wheelchair takes up so much room.
Mr. Stevenson himself has faced discrimination when visiting prisons to see clients; guards don’t believe or acknowledge that he is a lawyer. One guard insisted on strip-searching him every time Mr. Stevenson went to see his client.
While Mr. Stevenson and EJI do manage, with thousands of hours of appeals and investigation and documentation, to free many innocents or improperly imprisoned people, there are also many cases that cannot be won because of the roadblocks put up by a judicial system that is biased and won’t cooperate. He talks of being at executions and the toll it takes on him.
Why does he do it? Why does he risk his own life, the lives of his colleagues (EJI gets regular bomb threats), his health and his personal life to help the defenseless?
It is his brokenness that seeks the brokenness in others and makes him not only sympathize with them, but truly empathize. He becomes personally close to the people he’s trying to help. He and Mr. McMillian continue their friendship long after the latter has been exonerated and released from death row. The children Mr. Stevenson writes about could be his own children.
The notion of the wounded healer goes back to Jesus at least. But for all that, Mr. Stevenson sound like a young man, rather than the 56-year-old he is. His enthusiasm, his passion for what he does, rings out in his voice. To see pictures of him escorting Mr. Hinton out of prison, you’d barely guess the psychic pain his chosen work puts upon him.
Most telling of all, even the men he couldn’t save thank him with all their hearts for caring about them.
When Mr. Stevenson was a teen-ager, his grandfather was murdered by young men intent on stealing a black and white TV. You might think he would have dedicated his lives to victims. But to his way of thinking, the people he defends are victims themselves.
I wrote recently about the urgent need to do away with the death penalty. It is clear that statistics about the use of the death penalty in the US compared with other nations and statistics about the number of innocent people who have been executed or on death row, or the statistics about mentally challenged or brain-damaged people who have been executed, are not having an effect on our society.
While listening to Mr. Stevenson’s book, it came to me that anyone who supports the death penalty should have to witness some executions. Then they should spend a lot of time reflecting on their own brokenness so they can learn to empathize with the brokenness in others.
“God forgive them, they know not what they do,” Jesus said on the cross of his crucifiers. I believe that states that sanction the death penalty know exactly what they’re doing and do it anyway. God may forgive them; I can’t.