Since the 1980s, Bryan Stevenson has established himself as one of America’s most effective lawyers in obtaining the exoneration of death row inmates. From Alabama trial courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, his advocacy has freed the wrongly condemned and produced important legal precedents. Now in his mid-50s, Stevenson has written a gripping memoir that details his modest upbringing, Harvard education, struggles as a black lawyer in the Deep South, frustrations in representing the poor, building a successful public interest law practice from scratch, and triumphs against a criminal justice system that too often (at least 152 times since 1973) sentences innocent people to die.
Born in 1959, Stevenson grew up in a segregated settlement on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware. A “racial hierarchy” prevailed that “required symbols, markers, and constant reinforcement,” such as the wide displaying of the Confederate flag. “Black people around me were strong and determined,” he writes, “but [were] marginalized and excluded.” This personal history is enlivened by the author’s recollections of his grandmother, who was the daughter of Caroline County, Virginia, slaves.
After graduating with a degree in philosophy from Eastern University, Stevenson attended Harvard Law School, where he soon felt lost. This feeling changed during his second year, however, when he signed up for a one-month race and poverty litigation clinic that placed him with an organization that defended condemned death row prisoners in Georgia.
From that law school clinic, Stevenson writes that he discovered his life’s work. One of the best parts of the book is the introduction, where he describes the first trip he made as a fledgling intern to visit a death row client, “Henry,” in a rural Georgia prison. In an effective style that is repeated throughout the book, the author embroiders his narrative with pertinent dialogue that is at once both genuine and entertaining.
Following law school, the author began his legal career with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta. The annual salary was just $14,000. In developing his craft under difficult circumstances, he learned some gallows humor from his mentors: “capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.” He was also exposed to the type of fear and intimidation that black men are often confronted with in their interactions with police. In vivid detail, he recounts the night he was accosted by Atlanta police as he simply sat in his parked car at the end of a long workday. The humiliation left an indelible mark, and seemingly steeled him for the challenges ahead.
After four years practicing in Atlanta, Stevenson writes that he left to help start up a condemned prisoner defense office in Alabama. The challenges were daunting and endless. Alabama not only imposes the death penalty far more often per capita than any other state, but it is also the only state that lacks a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners.
As adroitly explained in the book, the legal landscape in Alabama is made especially perilous for the accused because elected state court judges are permitted to impose the death sentence even if the jury has voted to impose a life sentence. He writes that of the 192 prisoners on Alabama’s death row, about 20 percent resulted from judges overriding jury-imposed life sentences. This macabre system becomes particularly unseemly in judicial election campaigns, where candidates boast about their capital punishment records and lambast opponents who do not impose death sentences with enough alacrity.
One of the prominent story lines in the book is Stevenson’s post-conviction representation of Walter McMillan, a black man who was convicted in the 1986 killing of a young white woman in Alabama. The judge, Robert E. Lee Keys, ordered McMillan held on death row even before he was tried. After a day-and-a-half “trial,” McMillan was convicted based on the perjured and coerced testimony of a purported eye witness, Ralph Myers, who had a long criminal record. In addition, prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. Ignoring alibi testimony from black witnesses stating that McMillan was attending a church fish-fry at the time of the killing, the jury found McMillan guilty and voted to impose a life sentence. Keys overrode their verdict, however, and imposed the death penalty.
The historian William C. Davis once wrote that a great general is often not defined by the battles he wins, but by the defeats he can survive. Such an analogy is apt here, because the relentless Stevenson failed on McMillan’s first four appeals to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. On the fifth appeal, however, he succeeded in convincing a unanimous five-member panel to throw out the conviction, thus winning McMillan’s freedom. The most insightful part of the book is the description of Stevenson’s painstaking investigation, methodical gathering of evidence, persistent taking of testimony, fearless exposure of white law enforcement officials’ bias (McMillan dated white women), and dogged advocacy on his condemned client’s behalf.
Another featured story line is Stevenson’s legal challenges to state laws that impose life sentences on juvenile defenders without the possibility of parole. According to Stevenson’s research, 3,000 prisoners in America are serving such “death-in-prison sentences,” many for non-homicide offenses. In 2012, Stevenson represented such defendants in the “historic” consolidated cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.”
Over the past 25 years, Stevenson has built a two-person Alabama law office into the nationally prominent Equal Justice Initiative, which now employs a 45-person team of attorneys and staffers. He is generous in the book to his colleagues and many supporters, nobly giving them credit for the organization’s many triumphs. Equal Justice Initiative’s latest victory involves a client, Ray Hinton, who was exonerated in a murder case after serving nearly 30 years on Alabama’s death row. At the time Hinton was released in early April 2015, Stevenson had been on the case for 16 years.