Lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson talks capital punishment, child conviction and race relations

Stevenson: “We didn’t want to just own people, we wanted to be moral and just while we owned them, so we said that white people are different than black people.”


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A 14-year-old boy lived in a household where his mother was constantly subjected to domestic abuse by her boyfriend, who became violent while drinking. One day, the boyfriend hit the boy’s mother. She fell unconscious and bled heavily.

After 10 minutes of thinking his mother was dead, the boy ran to his mother’s bedroom to call 911, but he suddenly remembered the handgun that his mother’s boyfriend kept in the dresser. When the boy pointed the gun at the sleeping boyfriend’s head, he panicked and shot the man dead.

“This boy was very small for his age, he weighed less than 100 pounds,” American lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson said. “He’d never been in trouble before, he had no prior juvenile adjudications. He was the kind of kid that might have been tried for juvenile but for the fact that the man that he shot and killed, her mother’s boyfriend, was a deputy sheriff.”

After three days, the boy’s grandmother called Stevenson to represent him as his lawyer. When Stevenson visited him in prison, he held the boy who cried hysterically for almost an hour after finally speaking not about his mom or the boyfriend, but about his experience at the jail.

Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate who founded the Equal Justice Initiative to combat unfair sentencing, spoke about discrimination and unjust policy in the U.S. in front of more than 500 people on March 20 in Jesse Auditorium. Stevenson notably won the MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1995 and was named one of Time’s Most Influential People in 2015.

“He told me on the first night he had been hurt by several men,” Stevenson said. “And then he told me on the next night he had been raped by several people. He told me on the night that he got there so many people had hurt him he couldn’t remember how many there had been.”

The School of Law chose Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy” for the Inaugural Mizzou Law One Read program, which encourages students, staff and faculty to participate in related events. The Honors College also gave free copies of the book to students who attended the event on March 20.

To Stevenson, the case with the young boy represents how society creates narratives that sustain U.S. policy. He discussed “the politics of fear” that keeps citizens afraid and angry and therefore perpetuates unjust laws. Around 30 years ago, Stevenson said, politicians labeled certain children as “superpredators” to demonize those charged with crimes at young ages.

“Every state in the nation started lowering the age to try children as adults,” Stevenson said. “We have thousands of kids in our public jails and prisons. We started condemning kids to die in prison.”

J.D. Bowers, director of the Honors College, opened “American Injustice: Mercy, Justice and Making a Difference” by acknowledging the event’s 22 sponsors, including almost every MU college.

“It is a tremendous testament to MU for so many on campus to sponsor this event,” Bowers said.

In his lecture, Stevenson primarily addressed narratives and the problem of proximity. He argued that there are a lot of people trying to solve issues from a distance and that they miss out on nuances and details that are needed to be effective. On college campuses, he said, the community can get so wrapped up in that life that outside problems are commonly forgotten.

Stevenson decided to attend law school because he wanted to contribute to the end of racial inequality and poverty. He committed to social injustice when he was asked to visit a death row prisoner to explain he would not be executed within a year. After three hours of talking with the prisoner, the guards grew impatient and shoved the condemned man in shackles. The man stood in the doorway, refusing to move his feet, closed his eyes and sang, “I’m pressing on the upward way.”

“I knew that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey,” Stevenson said. “I realized that if he didn’t get there, I couldn’t get there.”

Like many of the people Stevenson has met and defended in his time as a lawyer, he grew up in a poor community without much access to opportunity. Due to the decision of lawyers that opened up segregated public high schools, Stevenson had educational opportunities that were not allowed to his parents. He said he would not have been on the stage in Jesse Auditorium without the proximity of the lawyers to the problems that damaged his town.

Stevenson argued that the U.S. remains in an unfree and post-genocidal society that has not embraced its historical wrongdoings as other nations have, which has hindered its advancement. Millions of native people were forced to resettle and killed in the West; Japanese-Americans were condemned to internment camps; and black Americans who were enslaved and lynched never saw justice or recognition, Stevenson said. He believes that tradition has carried on throughout American history and that we need shame to reconcile traditional racial prejudice. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 37.8 percent of U.S. prisoners are black, whereas the U.S. black population was only 13.2 percent as of 2014.

“I think the great evil of American slavery was the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to (legitimize) enslavement,” Stevenson said. “We didn’t want to just own people, we wanted to be moral and just and Christian while we owned them, so we said that white people are different than black people.”

When Emma Worgul, a sophomore recipient of the Brazeal Honors College Endowed Diversity Scholarship, heard about the racial tension on campus last October, she saw a paradox in that the problems were larger than the university but required the efforts of individuals to create resolution.

“We distance ourselves from each other,” Worgul said at the start of the event. “We rarely sit down to have an honest conversation or bridge the gaps, divides and tensions. We avoid the problems as if they don’t exist.”

Stevenson said that there were several times that, while he was representing a client, the other officials thought he was the one being charged with a crime. He subjected himself to strip searches and ridicule in the interest of his clients but was always bothered by the unfair treatment toward him. Living in Montgomery, Alabama, he said that the celebration of the Confederate flag surrounds him but represents racial inequality and a shameful history.

Stevenson received two questions about statues that honor historical slave owners, especially the Thomas Jefferson statue on Francis Quadrangle. One came from a member of Concerned Student 1950 who participated in the petition to remove the statue in October.

“My own view is that we should resist efforts to add more things, to make things that are unacceptable acceptable,” Stevenson said. “If a nation said, ‘We want to have a national holiday after Osama bin Laden,’ we would boycott that nation. That would be so provocative to us. We should honor the things that are honorable.”

Stevenson stressed the importance of community understanding and shame of past maltreatment. In addressing injustice, he said that people should get out of their comfort zones.

“There are things on this campus that have been uncomfortable, but we can’t get where we’re trying to go any other way,” Stevenson said.

In particular, he said that relations could be improved nationally between the police force and people of color if police chiefs would apologize on behalf of all former members for failing to protect members of the black community decades ago.

“The community actually wants to support the police if they feel supported by them,” Stevenson said. “But if they feel threatened and targeted and menaced by them, then of course they’re not going to support the police.”

Alabama, where Stevenson lives, saw the highest execution rate in 2011 out of any other state, but lacks any publicly funded program to provide counsel to inmates on death row. Through his organization, Stevenson represented a man with intellectual disabilities who faced execution in 30 days. As the man’s lawyer, Stevenson refuted the decision at every court level due to the law that people with intellectual disabilities people cannot face capital punishment. He even brought the case to the Supreme Court, but in the end, the request for stay was denied.

Stevenson called the man on the phone to tell him the decision, but the man was unable to respond.

The man had a severe speech impediment and he could not get the words out. Suddenly, Stevenson remembered a time from when he was a young boy that he had laughed at a kid who stuttered at church. When Stevenson’s mom found out, she was angry.

Stevenson recalled that his mother said: “Now, I want you to go back over there and tell that little boy that you’re sorry. After you tell that little boy that you’re sorry, I want you to hug that little boy. After you hug that little boy, I want you to tell that little boy that you love him.”

Stevenson said that he tried to act nonchalant when approaching the boy once again but saying “I love you” still seemed out of place. On the night of the execution, Stevenson remembered how the boy hugged him back and reciprocated “I love you.”

“Mr. Stevenson, I want to thank you for representing me,” a man on death row told Stevenson. “And then the last thing he said was, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I love you for trying to save my life.’ He hung up the phone, they pulled him away, they strapped him on a gourney and they executed him.”

Stevenson said that when he was reflecting over his work, he questioned why the vulnerable and poor sometimes seem to receive the worst societal treatment.

“Who is responsible for this?” he said. “We are, we are.”

Edited by Waverly Colville |

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