Bill Newman: On Bryan Stevenson’s long search for justice

Last modified: Friday, January 02, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — I want to share with you a story about compassion and courage, life and death, despair and jubilation. I want to tell you about Bryan Stevenson.

In 1986, I traveled to Georgia to meet Stevenson, an African-American attorney who grew up in the 1960s in the segregated, Confederate flag-displaying Eastern shore of Maryland. He and I were representing a young man on Georgia’s death row. I had not previously worked on a capital case. In contrast, most of Bryan’s clients were on the row.

When I arrived at his office address, I found no sign and no lights and the door locked, dead-bolted. The reason for the anonymity, I would soon learn, was bomb threats directed at him and his colleagues at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee.

That week Bryan and I spent a day combing through the boxes of exhibits in a back room of the clerk’s office in the court house where the trial had been held. We also interviewed local witnesses and visited the scene of the crime.

As twilight approached and we were about to head back to Atlanta, a three- or four-hour drive through largely deserted swaths of south Georgia, I commented on the large white American car tailing us. In as light-hearted a tone as I could muster, I asked Bryan if he thought we were about to die. He responded that he thought we’d be OK.

I then asked him whether his work ever made him afraid. He told me about driving to a small rural town to meet a client newly charged with murder, an African-American man, and passing a sign with hand-scrawled letters that said “Welcome to Klan Country.”

Stevenson has written a recently published book, “Just Mercy.” The book uses as its lodestar the story of Bryan’s death-row client Walter McMillian, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to die even though he had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. Many factors contributed to this travesty — a mediocre, at best, trial attorney, police perjury and coercion of witnesses, the jury’s racism and the venality and dishonesty of both prosecutors and judges.

Reading the book shortly after the non-indictment of police officers Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown dead in Ferguson, Missouri, and Daniel Pantaleo for strangling Eric Garner to death on Staten Island made me reflect on the long history of law enforcement in America killing unarmed black men.

In contemporary America, when cops unjustly kill, prosecutors often cover for them. These politician-lawyers cheat the truth and then soil it beyond recognition by mouthing as a mantra “the system of justice” — apparently with no appreciation for the macabre irony of the words they utter.

Stevenson, who founded and directs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, does more than win freedom, life, new trials and shorter sentences for people sentenced to die — a result he has accomplished over 100 times. Those victories include the vindication and release of McMillian after 10 years on death row. In our case, with Greenfield attorney Buz Eisenberg having later joined our defense team, the death sentence was converted to life with the possibility of parole. But there’s way more.

Stevenson’s half dozen arguments before the United States Supreme Court have stopped the execution of children and the mentally ill in the United States; prevented children from automatic sentences of life and death in prison; stopped teenagers from being housed — that means raped and sexually abused — in adult prisons. His successes are beyond extraordinary.

Please allow me this reflection: I don’t have many heroes. Generally speaking, people are too flawed for me to enshrine them with that moniker.

There are, of course, exceptions. One is Nelson Mandela. Nobel Prize laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu describes Stevenson as “America’s young Nelson Mandela.” I agree. For me, Bryan Stevenson is a hero.

Another personal note: I don’t cry often, but “Just Mercy”
made me cry. The stories of botched executions, of abused and beaten children condemned to die, of Vietnam vets whose bodies and minds were mangled in the jungles of Southeast Asia — these stories are that compelling.

In his introduction, Stevenson writes that the law and our society’s commitment to fairness and equality should be measured not by how we treat the powerful and privileged but by how we treat “the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Ultimately, “Just Mercy” is not about Stevenson, his colleagues, his clients or his adversaries. It’s about us, how anger and fear can make us so vindictive and unjust that we all suffer from the absence of mercy.

As Bryan says, “The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more ... we all need mercy [and] justice, and — perhaps — some measure of unmerited grace.”

Bill Newman is a Northampton lawyer, host of a WHMP weekday program and author of “When the War Came Home.” His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at


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