The Profile Dossier: Bryan Stevenson, the Death Row Lawyer

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This is a special edition of The Profile. As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a deep dive on an individual person. I hope you enjoy this one.

Bryan Stevenson is known as the death row lawyer.

Stevenson was only 29 years old when he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to found a human rights organization called the Equal Justice Initiative. The idea was to litigate on behalf of society’s most vulnerable — juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted, and poor people denied effective representation.

Decades later, the results have been more impressive than even Stevenson could’ve imagined. In the last 30 years, Stevenson and his staff won the release of more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. He has also argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court, including a ruling protecting prisoners who suffer from dementia and a 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger.

Stevenson got his well-deserved spot in the mainstream limelight thanks to a new film called, Just Mercy. In it, a young Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) takes on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who is sentenced to die for murder despite evidence that proves his innocence. 

The case remains an important one for Stevenson personally and professionally. When Stevenson decided to defend McMillian, a judge tried to talk him out of it. Emotions were running high, and anger was flaring that someone would come in and defend a condemned person who had been accused and convicted of murder.

"This is one of the few cases I've worked on where I got bomb threats and death threats because we were fighting to free this man who was so clearly innocent," Stevenson says. "It reveals this disconnect that I'm so concerned about when I think about our criminal justice system."

READ. 

‘Just Mercy:’ This is the memoir authored by Stevenson himself that was adapted for the film. It personalizes the struggle of injustice, racism, and poverty in our country. “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned,” Stevenson writes. Just Mercy is a painful and powerful account of the realities of capital punishment and the criminal justice system, but Stevenson tells it in a humane, compassionate, empathetic way. Read.

‘The Sun Does Shine:’ This is the type of book that stays with you long after you’ve finished it. In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder in Alabama. Hinton knew it was a case of mistaken identity and naively believed that the truth would prove his innocence and set him free. But being a poor black man in the South, Hinton was sentenced to death by electrocution. He served 30 years on death row for crimes he did not commit. Bryan Stevenson helped Hinton win his release in 2015. Upon his exoneration, Stevenson said, “I can’t think of a case that more urgently dramatizes the need for reform than what has happened to Anthony Ray Hinton.” Read

‘The Legacy of Lynching, on Death Row:’ Being a death-row lawyer is a brutal practice because, well, your clients can get killed. In this New Yorker profile, you get a sense of why Stevenson does what he does. “After working for more than 25 years,” Stevenson says, “I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice. I do what I do because I’m broken, too.” Read.

WATCH.

On the power of identity: Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk, titled “We Need to Talk About an Injustice,” is said to have received the longest standing ovation of any speaker, and the talk has been viewed more than 6 million times. In it, Stevenson asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Do people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed?” But there's another way of thinking about where we are in our identity, he says. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill? Watch.

On the bias of the modern death penalty: Told primarily in his own words, this HBO documentary, True Justice, shares Bryan Stevenson’s experience with a criminal justice system that “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” Stevenson believes that justice lies in the ugly details because they are “what might allow us to one day claim something really beautiful.” Watch the full film for free.

LISTEN.

On the psychological scars of death row: In this episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, Stevenson reflects on some of his most high-profile cases in Alabama. In one of his most famous cases, Stevenson helped exonerate Walter McMillian, who was convicted of killing 18-year-old Ronda Morrison. Three witnesses testified against McMillian, while six witnesses, who were black, testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. With Stevenson's representation, McMillian was eventually freed, but not without the scars of being on death row. “You can't threaten to kill someone every day year after year and not harm them, not traumatize them, not break them in ways that [are] really profound,” he says. Listen.

On the importance of collective compassion: Stevenson spoke with Oprah about the lessons he’s learned through his career. Oprah admits that she always thought about criminals as part of a certain category of people that deserve to be in prison. In a time when second chances are becoming ever-so rare, Stevenson wants to remind us that we’re more than our worst mistakes. Listen.

TECHNIQUES TO TRY TODAY.

Get proximate to suffering: Whether you like it or not, you probably live in a bubble. To better understand other perspectives, visit a shelter, volunteer at a food bank, or help someone going through a tough time. “We must get proximate to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality,” he says. “If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.”

Do things you find uncomfortable and inconvenient: You have to be willing to go where others don’t, and embrace people others won’t. Small acts of kindness and a belief in the goodness of humanity is what will lead to big societal change. “I believe the opposite of poverty is justice, and when we do justice, we deconstruct the conditions that give rise to poverty,” he says.

Believe things you haven’t seen: In society today, we’ve put a huge emphasis on the importance of role models. But that’s not always possible for kids who are growing up in poor, rural neighborhoods. “That’s my mission: I really want to get in the heads and hearts of kids and persuade them that they can believe things they haven’t seen, they can do things that maybe others haven’t done before them, that they are more than their worst acts,” he says.

WORDS TO REMEMBER.

"Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."

“Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.”

“Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’” 

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

“Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”


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