Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society

Bryan Stevenson, the winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, has taken his fight all the way to the Supreme Court

Bryan Stevenson crusades for thousands of young people in America's prisons. (Ethan Hill)
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Stevenson, 52, is soft-spoken, formal in a shirt and tie, reserved. He carries with him the cadence and eloquence of a preacher and the palpable sorrow that comes with a lifetime advocating for the condemned. He commutes to New York, where he is a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law. In Montgomery he lives alone, spends 12, sometimes 14 hours a day working out of his office and escapes, too rarely, into music. “I have a piano, which provides some therapy,” he says. “I am mindful, most of the time, of the virtues of regular exercise. I grow citrus in pots in my backyard. That’s pretty much it.”

He grew up in rural Milton, Delaware, where he began his education in a “colored” school and other forms of discrimination, such as black and white entrances to the doctor’s and dentist’s offices, prevailed. But he was raised in the embrace of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his parents worked and provided an economic and emo- tional stability that many around him lacked. He played the piano during worship. His father and his sister, who is a music teacher, still live in Delaware. His brother teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His mother died in 1999.

When Stevenson was 16, his maternal grandfather was murdered in Philadelphia by four juveniles; they were convicted and sentenced to prison. Stevenson does not know what has become of them. “Losing a loved one is traumatic, painful and disorienting,” he says. But ultimately the episode, and others in which relatives or friends became crime victims, “reinforced for me the primacy of responding to the conditions of hopelessness and despair that create crime.”

He attended a Christian college, Eastern University in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he directed the gospel choir. He did not, he says, “step into a world where you were not centered around faith” until he entered Harvard Law School in 1981. The world of privilege and entitlement left him alienated, as did the study of torts and civil procedure. But in January 1983, he went to Atlanta for a month-long internship with an organization now called the Southern Center for Human Rights. The lawyers there defended inmates on death row, many of whom, Stevenson discovered, had been railroaded in flawed trials. He found his calling. He returned to the center when he graduated and became a staff attorney. He spent his first year of work sleeping on a borrowed couch.

He found himself frequently in Alabama, which sentences more people to death per capita than any other state. There is no state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death-row prisoners, meaning half of the condemned were represented by court-appointed lawyers whose compen- sation was capped at $1,000. Stevenson’s reviews of trial records convinced him that few of the condemned ever had an adequate defense. He got the conviction of one death-row inmate, Walter McMillian, overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. His next case, he says, led him to establish EJI.

It began with a collect call from Herbert Richardson, a death-row inmate at Holman State Prison. Richardson, a disturbed Vietnam combat veteran, had left an explosive device on the porch of an estranged girlfriend; it killed a young girl. His execution was to be held in 30 days. Stevenson, after a second phone call, filed for an emergency stay of execution, which the state rejected.

“He never really got representation until we jumped in,” Stevenson says.

He went to the prison on the day of the execution, which was scheduled for midnight. He found his client surrounded by a half-dozen family members, including the woman who had married him the week before. Richardson repeatedly asked Stevenson to make sure his wife received the American flag he would be given as a veteran.

“It was time for the visit to end,” Stevenson recalls. But the visitation officer, a female guard, was “clearly emotionally unprepared to make these people leave.” When she insisted, Stevenson says, Richardson’s wife grabbed her husband. “She says, ‘I’m not leaving.’ Other people don’t know what to do. They are holding on to him.” The guard left, but her superiors sent her back in. “She has tears running down her face. She looks to me and says, ‘Please, please help me.’ ”

He began to hum a hymn. The room went still. The family started singing the words. Stevenson went over to the wife and said, “We’re going to have to let him go.” She did.


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