Criminal justice in America sometimes seems more criminal than just — replete with error, malfeasance, racism and cruel, if not unusual, punishment, coupled with stubborn resistance to reform and a failure to learn from even its most glaring mistakes. And nowhere, let us pray, are matters worse than in the hard Heart of Dixie, a.k.a. Alabama, the adopted stomping ground of Bryan Stevenson, champion of the damned.
Stevenson, the visionary founder and executive director of the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, surely has done as much as any other living American to vindicate the innocent and temper justice with mercy for the guilty — efforts that have brought him, among myriad honors, a MacArthur genius grant and honorary degrees from Yale, Penn and Georgetown. Now 54, Stevenson has made his latest contribution to criminal justice in the form of an inspiring memoir titled "Just Mercy."
It will come as no surprise to those who have heard Stevenson speak or perused any of his briefs that "Just Mercy" is an easy read — a work of style, substance and clarity. Mixing commentary and reportage, he adroitly juxtaposes triumph and failure, neither of which is in short supply, against an unfolding backdrop of the saga of Walter McMillian, an innocent black Alabaman sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman.
Stevenson is something of an enigma. A lifelong bachelor, seemingly married to his work, he grew up in a working-class African American family in southern Delaware. Born five years after Brown v. Board of Education, he endured the indignities of the vestiges of Jim Crow. That, of course, might have set him on a path to champion the downtrodden.
When he was 16, however, his 86-year-old grandfather was murdered by adolescent marauders bent on nothing more than stealing the elderly man's black-and-white TV. The trauma surrounding the senseless tragedy — occurring as it did in the wake of racially coded political rhetoric about crime — might have turned a lesser person into a reactionary zealot, but Stevenson took a higher road. Within a decade, as a newly minted lawyer, he forsook the wealth that was virtually guaranteed by his degrees from Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, taking what amounted to a vow of poverty to pursue civil rights law in the South. He began at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta before moving to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Initiative.
Thirty years on, he has won relief for scores of condemned prisoners; exonerated a number of innocent ones; fought to end the death penalty and life sentences without parole for juveniles; and confronted, with admirable albeit limited success, abuse of the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped and children in prison.
Of all the victories, Stevenson clearly takes the greatest satisfaction in the exoneration of McMillian, whose case played out in Monroeville, Ala. — a town immortalized by Harper Lee in "To Kill a Mockingbird." McMillian's conviction rested on testimony so preposterous that it's astonishing anyone could have believed it, especially in the face of six alibi witnesses, including a police officer, who placed him at a fish fry 11 miles from the scene of the crime when it occurred.
The prosecution sponsored two key witnesses, both of whom lied and one of whom complained in a tape-recorded pretrial interview withheld from the defense that he was being coerced to lie. The other witness, seeking favorable treatment from the prosecution for crimes of his own, testified that he'd seen McMillian's low-rider truck near the crime scene. It turned out, however, that McMillian had not modified his truck into a low-rider until weeks after the crime.
A jury from which the prosecution had systematically excluded African Americans found McMillian guilty but recommended a life sentence, rather than death. In 34 of the 36 states with death penalties then on their books, jury recommendations were binding, the exceptions being Alabama and Florida, where judges were — and still are — empowered to override jury recommendations. That's what evocatively named Judge Robert E. Lee Key Jr. did in the McMillian case.
McMillian most likely would have been executed had Stevenson not turned to an unconventional court of last resort — "60 Minutes," which in late 1992 aired a devastating segment on the case. Three months later, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals granted McMillian a new trial, and a few days after that, the prosecution dropped the charges.
Another sweet Stevenson victory grew out of his quest to understand why adolescents, like those who murdered his grandfather, are prone to commit violent acts with senseless, reckless abandon. Stevenson took on the representation of several clients sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. In challenging their sentences, he emphasized, as he puts it in his memoir, "the incongruity of not allowing children to smoke, drink, vote . . . because of their well-recognized lack of maturing and judgment while simultaneously treating some of the most at-risk, neglected, and impaired children exactly the same as full-grown adults in the criminal justice system."
One impaired child Stevenson represented was Evan Miller, who was 14 when he and two other youths beat a middle-aged man to death with a baseball bat after several hours of drinking and using drugs with him. Miller was sentenced to life without parole, but his cohorts accepted plea deals that gave them parole-eligible sentences. Stevenson took Miller's case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2012 held in the case that mandatory life sentences without parole for children violated the Eighth Amendment.
Along the way, Stevenson suffered tragic defeats, some of which speak volumes about the politics of crime and punishment and the hypocrisy it breeds. A case in point is that of Michael Lindsey, who went to the Alabama electric chair in 1989, at age 28, for the murder of a 63-year-old neighbor woman. Lindsey's guilt was not at issue, but he was black and the victim was white — a situation long known to make a harsh sentence likelier than when the races are reversed.
As in McMillian's and 99 other Alabama cases so far, Lindsey's jury recommended a life sentence, but the judge overrode the recommendation, sending him to death row. Stevenson sought clemency for Lindsey, but Gov. Guy Hunt denied it, declaring that he would not "go against the wishes of the community expressed by the jury" — although the jury, in fact, had expressed the wish that Lindsey be allowed to live. Never mind the truth.
A paramount problem with criminal justice in Alabama is that its trial judges are elected — as are those in 38 other states, according to the American Bar Association. Elected judges, not surprisingly, tend to behave like what they in fact are — politicians. As Stevenson explains, judicial candidates attract campaign contributions mostly from business interests in favor of tort reform or from civil trial lawyers against tort reform. The campaign financiers have little interest in criminal justice, but what matters to voters unschooled in tort reform is being tough on crime. “No judge wants to deal with attack ads that highlight the grisly details of a murder case in which the judge failed to impose the most severe punishment,” Stevenson points out.
Judicial override in capital cases has been substantially restricted by case law in Florida but remains unbridled in Alabama — which is and, despite Stevenson's yeoman efforts, will remain for the foreseeable future a long way from Nirvana.
Thanks in significant part to Stevenson's brilliance and dedication to a cause that hasn't always been popular, the situation in Alabama and across the land is improving. Stevenson is not only a great lawyer, he's also a gifted writer and storyteller. His memoir should find an avid audience among players in the legal system — jurists, prosecutors, defense lawyers, legislators, academics, journalists — and especially anyone contemplating a career in criminal justice.