Looking for Justice in the Justice System

Monroeville, Alabama is famous for being the home of Harper Lee, who immortalized the town—and the racial inequities in its justice system—in her much-beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In her fictional Monroeville, called Maycomb, a jury wrongfully convicts an African-American man of raping a white woman, even though there is overwhelming evidence of his innocence.

The situation is far from historical fiction. In 1988, Walter McMillan, an African-American, was sentenced to death for the murder of a store clerk—even though more than a dozen people confirmed his alibi at a church function. When the jury returned a sentence of life in prison, the judge elected to increase it to the death penalty. According to Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who won McMillan’s freedom in 1993, McMillan had no previous criminal record and was only brought to the attention of the authorities was because he was having an affair with a white woman.

The connections between McMillan’s case and To Kill a Mockingbird were not lost on Stevenson. He used the similarities to structure his recent book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. In it, he chronicles his work as an activist lawyer fighting against wrongful convictions and promoting social justice. In the McMillan case, Stevenson found that the state withheld evidence, and eventually all of the witness all recanted their testimony. In light of these developments, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation agreed that McMillan was innocent and had the charges dismissed. However, the cost to McMillan was high. According to Stevenson—who remained close with him until his death—his experiences on death row haunted him for the rest of his life.

Stevenson says that the number of wrongful convictions is “shocking.” He says, “For every nine people who have been executed in America, we find one innocent person on death row who has been exonerated.” Stevenson sees the lack of outrage about these kinds of cases—where minorities are wrongfully sentenced to death—as a “practiced silence” that comes from our nation’s collective refusal to come to terms with the history of slavery. For Stevenson, “the great evil of slavery was not involuntary servitude, it was this ideology of white supremacy that we created to legitimate slavery.” For Stevenson, the project of fighting for and creating a more just system means actively recognizing this past—in our monuments, markers, history books, and, of course, courtrooms.

Click below to hear Stevenson’s full interview with Steve Paulson.

Equal Justice Under Law

Working for Equal Justice - Bryan Stevenson

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson talks about his work winning relief for dozens of condemned prisoners and challenging bias against the poor and people of color.

Your rating: None
Average: 5 (5 votes)