"Just Mercy": Bryan Stevenson on Ferguson, Prison Reform & Why the Opposite of Poverty is Justice

November 20, 2014

As Ferguson awaits the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown shooting in Missouri, we speak to attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of the new book, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption." With growing focus on the failures of the criminal justice system, Stevenson has been fighting those injustices case by case. He is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a group based in Alabama that represents some of this country’s most marginalized people — the poor and the wrongfully convicted. Stevenson has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court six times. In 2012, he won a landmark Supreme Court case that barred states from giving mandatory life sentences without parole to children. The Nobel Prize-winning South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called Stevenson "America’s young Mandela." Others have compared him to Atticus Finch, the fearless, fictional hero of Harper Lee’s seminal novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Stevenson’s book tells many stories, but focuses in particular on his battle to free an African-American man named Walter McMillian, who was falsely convicted and condemned to die for killing a white woman in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Stevenson joins us to discuss his work, the situation in Ferguson, and why he argues that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Protests are continuing in Ferguson, Missouri, ahead of the grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. On Wednesday, demonstrators braved sub-zero temperatures to rally outside the Ferguson Police Department. The grand jury’s decision on whether to charge Officer Wilson is expected any day. They’re expected to reconvene on Friday.

We’re joined here in New York by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice initiative, a group based in Alabama that represents some of this country’s most marginalized people—the poor and the wrongfully convicted. Bryan Stevenson has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners and argued before the Supreme Court six times. In 2012, he won a landmark Supreme Court case that barred states from giving mandatory life sentences without parole to children. The Nobel Prize-winning South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called Bryan Stevenson "America’s young Mandela." Bryan Stevenson is just out with a new book; it’s called Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Bryan.


AMY GOODMAN: The book is astounding, but I want to start with Ferguson. Your thoughts?

BRYAN STEVENSON: You know, I think Ferguson should be seen as a mirror for all of America. In every community in this country, we have black and brown people who are being presumed dangerous and guilty. And it’s following them into schools, where they suffer higher suspension and expulsion rates. It follows them into department stores. It follows them into the streets. And that burden of being presumed dangerous and guilty is extremely frustrating and angering. And when you have incidents like Michael Brown being shot by an officer, that blows up.

And we need to keep careful attention to what’s going on in Ferguson, but we need to understand that in every community in this country where there are young black and brown men and women, that phenomenon, that problem, exists. And we are not going to deal with this issue if we just think whether this officer is indicted or prosecuted or not tells us something. We’ve got to really begin talking honestly about the legacy of racial inequality in this country and what it’s done to all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on the governor, Governor Nixon—quite astounding that that is his name—but Governor Nixon of Missouri holding this news conference announcing a state of emergency?

BRYAN STEVENSON: You know, it’s just sort of like an old bad movie. It’s like they’re acting out this script that is exactly the opposite of what you should do when you’re dealing with these kind of issues—declaring a state of emergency, declaring a state of crisis. The crisis, for them, really isn’t what’s happening with this officer. What the crisis is, is that people are actually exposing all of this bias and all of this tension and all of this frustration. And it’s, I think, really quite misguided. It’s going to create more problems than it solves. He’s baiting the community by engaging in these kind of tactics. And I just wish he was talking to people who understood the pain and anguish of people in Ferguson, the pain and anguish of people of color in many parts of this country, because if he did, he’d actually be saying things differently. They’d be doing things differently. And I think we would have much less violence and conflict and tension. But because he’s talking to the same people who are in that bunker-down mentality, you see them repeating the mistakes that took place immediately after the shooting—taking this very militarized approach, gearing up, gunning up. And I think it’s a very misguided, very misguided approach to this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: You said in a TED Talk that went viral, "The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth ... the opposite of poverty is justice."

BRYAN STEVENSON: We have so many people in this country that live in the margins of society, that live in jails and prisons, that live with disability, that live outside of the American experience in the way that most people think about it. And we sometimes throw things at them to make ourselves feel better about their existence, their reality, when, in fact, I really believe that poverty in this country is a function of our unwillingness to do justice to many parts of our community. And I really do believe that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. I think, you know, we have this arrogance. We think that when we make a mistake, we don’t ever have to apologize, we don’t actually have to rethink how we’ve behaved; we can just throw some money or throw some policy out there and move forward. I don’t believe that gets you closer to deconstructing poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back for a moment to Darren Wilson, if he is indicted and if he isn’t. I mean, of course, we don’t know at this point. But if he isn’t indicted, what would you say to the people of Ferguson? And, of course, this is so much bigger than Ferguson.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Yeah. I think that they should be upset. They should be angry. I would say you shouldn’t be surprised. We haven’t created an environment where people of color can be fully protected, because we haven’t talked about what it means to be a person of color in this country. I think, you know, we’ve never really told the truth about some basic realities.

The legacy—you know, we’re doing a whole project on slavery, because I don’t think we’ve ever told the truth about what slavery did to our thinking about racial difference. We told lies about people of color. We said that people of African descent aren’t smart, aren’t hard-working, aren’t capable, and because of that, we should enslave them. And because we never confronted that, slavery didn’t end, it just evolved. It turned into decades of racial terror, where we use violence and lynching and convict leasing and threats to sustain racial hierarchy. That’s our history up until the era of Jim Crow and segregation. And then we codified these differences between the races. And even after the civil rights movement, we never told the truth about all of the damage we did. We humiliated people of color on a daily basis for decades. My parents were humiliated every day of their life. I started my education in a colored school, because I was told I wasn’t smart enough to go to the public school. Those things accumulate. And because we haven’t dealt with it, we now live in an era of mass incarceration, where we intimidate and threaten and harass and menace people of color. And these—everybody feels it.

And so, we shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t get justice. What we should do is start talking about truth. And we’ve got to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. And I hope, without an indictment, we’ll be more committed to telling the truth about our history and creating a new forward path.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you grow up, Bryan?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I grew up in southern Delaware, the kind of the top of the South, on the Eastern Shore, in a community that was very much segregated. There were no black high schools in my county. My dad couldn’t go to high school there. And I saw people really branded by the mark of Jim Crow and of apartheid. And you can’t recover—and white people, too. We have a whole generation of white people who were taught that they’re better than other people because of their race. And we haven’t helped them recover from that, and they’re manifesting this bias in ways that they’re not even conscious of sometimes. We’ve got a lot of work to do in this country to confront our history of racial inequality.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is Walter McMillian?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Walter McMillian was one of the characters, one of the people I wrote about in this book, was an innocent man wrongly convicted of a murder in Monroeville, Alabama. At the time, there was a young woman murdered in downtown Monroeville. Mr. McMillian was actually at his home with about 25 other African Americans raising money for his church, and so everybody knew he was innocent. But he was charged because he was having an interracial affair, not because he had a prior criminal history. He was put on death row for 15 months—before the trial. He was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. What was really troubling for me is that this case took place in Monroeville, which is where Harper Lee grew up and wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. So it’s a community that completely identifies with that story, but couldn’t recognize the injustice of this wrongful conviction of an African American.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have been compared to the young Atticus Finch.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, I want to do better than Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch’s client, Tom Robinson, dies in prison because there was no hope for him. I want our clients, I want people wrongly convicted and accused, to get relief. I want the people in jails and prisons all across this country who are there unfairly, unnecessarily, released. I want to do more than what happens to that client in To Kill a Mockingbird.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us what happened to Walter McMillian.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Well, we ultimately were able to present evidence of his innocence. The police had coerced witnesses to testify falsely against him. And for some bizarre reason, they actually tape-recorded the sessions where they were coercing the witnesses to testify falsely. So we got the tapes. And the witness was saying, "You want me to frame an innocent man for murder, and I don’t feel right about that." And we presented that evidence and ultimately won Mr. McMillian’s release. He’s one of about 150 people on death row who’ve been exonerated in this country. For every 10 executions in America, we’ve identified one innocent person who was innocent and who has now been released. It’s a shameful rate of error when it comes to imposing the death penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you encouraged by the number of states that are overturning the death penalty, overall, getting rid of, abolishing the death penalty?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I am encouraged by that, but I’m also worried, because these issues are fairly local. Each state gets to make up its own decision. And so, we’ve seen some progress with several states in the last few years abolishing the death penalty. I was especially encouraged by the 2012 referendum in California, where people in that state almost voted to end the death penalty by popular vote, which would really be progress. But I’m worried that our indifference to wrongful conviction, our indifference to suffering of jailed and imprisoned people continues to be very strong. And until we break that indifference, I worry that we’re going to continue to have a country where people are condemned unfairly, sentenced unfairly, tortured in jails and prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan Stevenson, the title of your book, why Just Mercy?

BRYAN STEVENSON: I think that we have too little compassion in our criminal justice system. We’ve been corrupted by the politics of fear and anger. We’re doing harsh, extraordinarily torturous things to people. And I think we’ve forgotten that, you know, it’s not mercy, it’s not justice, it’s not compassion, when we give it to people who haven’t done anything wrong. You earn the right to call yourself compassionate and merciful when you expose people who have fallen down, who have done bad things to your justice, to your mercy. And I see a criminal justice system completely devoid of mercy, which makes us completely devoid of justice. And we’ve got to do better.

AMY GOODMAN: Young people in prison. Talk about the significance of when—for example, the story of Joe Sullivan, who is sentenced to life at the age of 13.

BRYAN STEVENSON: You know, one of the more tragic things that we’ve done over the last 40 years is that we’ve put thousands of children in the adult prison system, the adult criminal justice system. We’ve now got 250,000 people serving long sentences for crimes they committed as children. We have some 3,000 children sentenced to die in prison, some as young as 13 and 14 years of age. And it’s horrific. You know, I was hearing about the DeFriest story, which is a very compelling story, but there are thousands of children in similar situations. I’ve represented 13-year-olds in the state of Florida who were also put in solitary confinement, some of whom have been there for 18 years. Joe Sullivan was 13, convicted of a non-homicide and sentenced to die in prison.

We’ve won some Supreme Court decisions that have made it easier to challenge some of those sentences, but we still have a lot of work to do. We created these narratives about children where we said some children aren’t really children. And we’ve done some really cruel and torturous things. And it’s shameful to me that the United States and Somalia are the only two countries in the world that have not signed the Covenant on the Rights of the Child, because it protects children from adult prison sentences like life in prison and the death penalty. And one of the great tragedies is when you go to jails and prisons, and you see 13- and 14- and 15-year-old children in settings where they’re being raped and abused because we haven’t confronted the need to protect children after they’ve been accused of a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: The 2012 Supreme Court decision that your group, that you argued, barring mandatory life without parole for children, give us examples.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Sure. Well, I write about a young woman named Trina Garnett in Pennsylvania who was horribly abused. Her mother died when she was young. She was living in a house where she was suffering from a lot of violence. She was disabled. She was homeless, living on the streets of Chester, eating out of garbage cans. She met a family. There was a boy in the family, and one night she tries to go and see the boy by breaking in. She drops matches, the house catches on fire, and two children died. She’s convicted of an unintentional murder, but mandatory life without parole. We have these mandatory life sentences that are very common in the adult sentence. So, at the age of 14, she’s condemned to die in prison. She goes to the state prison. She’s raped by a male guard. She gets pregnant. She’s been in prison now for almost 40 years, and that suffering continues.

And there are many children like that who have suffered these horrible injustices because we imposed a mandatory sentence. We would not consider their age at the time of sentencing. And we don’t let kids vote, we don’t let them drink, we don’t let them smoke. We protect child status—except when they’re accused of a crime. And then we say that their child status doesn’t matter. And there’s a whole nation where we have this whole country is now populated by jails and prisons where you find children. There are 15 states with no minimum age for trying a child as an adult. I’ve represented nine- and 10-year-old children threatened with adult prosecution. There’s a 10-year-old facing adult prosecution in Pennsylvania now, a 12-year-old in the state of Florida. It’s really shameful what we’ve done to children in the name of being tough on crime, and I think that disconnect is part of what we’re trying to expose with our litigation.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you most hope?

BRYAN STEVENSON: You know, I’m most hopeful that when you tell people about these realities, when you get people to actually look, if most people saw what I see, I think they’d be outraged. They’d demand justice. And so, what I’m hopeful is that we’re creating more space to give people a glimpse of what’s happening, through films and through books and through narratives. And I am persuaded that we can bring down the prison population in this country by dramatic—I think we can reduce the prison population by 50 percent in the next six or seven years, if we just demand greater justice.

AMY GOODMAN: This is part one of our conversation. We’ll continue after our broadcast, and we’ll post it at Click here to watch Part 2 of this interview. Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, his new book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

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