Just Mercy is a work of nonfiction. Some names and identifying details have been changed.Copyright © 2014 by Bryan StevensonAll rights reserved.Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a PenguinRandom House Company, New York.SPIEGEL & GRAU and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.ISBN 978-0-8129-9452-0eBook ISBN 978-0-8129-9453-7www.spiegelandgrau.comJacket design: Alex MertoJacket photograph: © Martin Barraud/Getty Imagesv3.1
Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.—REINHOLD NIEBUHR
ContentsCoverTitle PageCopyrightEpigraphIntroduction: Higher Ground
One: Mockingbird Players
Three: Trials and Tribulation
Four: The Old Rugged Cross
Five: Of the Coming of John
Six: Surely Doomed
Seven: Justice Denied
Eight: All God’s Children
Nine: I’m Here
Eleven: I’ll Fly Away
Twelve: Mother, Mother
Fourteen: Cruel and Unusual
Sixteen: The Stonecatchers’ Song of SorrowEpilogueDedicationAcknowledgmentsAuthor’s NoteNotesAbout the Author
IntroductionHigher GroundI wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old studentat Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced andworried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prison—and had certainly never been to death row. When I learned that I would be visiting thisprisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show.Georgia’s death row is in a prison outside of Jackson, a remote town in a rural part of thestate. I drove there by myself, heading south on I-75 from Atlanta, my heart pounding harderthe closer I got. I didn’t really know anything about capital punishment and hadn’t eventaken a class in criminal procedure yet. I didn’t have a basic grasp of the complex appealsprocess that shaped death penalty litigation, a process that would in time become as familiarto me as the back of my hand. When I signed up for this internship, I hadn’t given muchthought to the fact that I would actually be meeting condemned prisoners. To be honest, Ididn’t even know if I wanted to be a lawyer. As the miles ticked by on those rural roads, themore convinced I became that this man was going to be very disappointed to see me.I studied philosophy in college and didn’t realize until my senior year that no one would payme to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a “post-graduation plan” led meto law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something aboutyour field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn’t require you to know anything. AtHarvard, I could study law while pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the KennedySchool of Government, which appealed to me. I was uncertain about what I wanted to dowith my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, America’shistory of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another. Itwould have something to do with the things I’d already seen in life so far and wonderedabout, but I couldn’t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear.Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry I’d made the wrong choice.Coming from a small college in Pennsylvania, I felt very fortunate to have been admitted, but
by the end of my first year I’d grown disillusioned. At the time, Harvard Law School was apretty intimidating place, especially for a twenty-one-year-old. Many of the professors usedthe Socratic method—direct, repetitive, and adversarial questioning—which had theincidental effect of humiliating unprepared students. The courses seemed esoteric anddisconnected from the race and poverty issues that had motivated me to consider the law inthe first place.Many of the students already had advanced degrees or had worked as paralegals withprestigious law firms. I had none of those credentials. I felt vastly less experienced andworldly than my fellow students. When law firms showed up on campus and beganinterviewing students a month after classes started, my classmates put on expensive suits andsigned up so that they could receive “fly-outs” to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, orWashington, D.C. It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparingourselves to do. I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school.I spent the summer after my first year in law school working with a juvenile justice projectin Philadelphia and taking advanced calculus courses at night to prepare for my next year atthe Kennedy School. After I started the public policy program in September, I still feltdisconnected. The curriculum was extremely quantitative, focused on figuring out how tomaximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefitsachieved and the costs created. While intellectually stimulating, decision theory,econometrics, and similar courses left me feeling adrift. But then, suddenly, everything cameinto focus.I discovered that the law school offered an unusual one-month intensive course on race andpoverty litigation taught by Betsy Bartholet, a law professor who had worked as an attorneywith the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Unlike most courses, this one took students off campus,requiring them to spend the month with an organization doing social justice work. I eagerlysigned up, and so in December 1983 I found myself on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where Iwas scheduled to spend a few weeks working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee(SPDC).I hadn’t been able to afford a direct flight to Atlanta, so I had to change planes in Charlotte,North Carolina, and that’s where I met Steve Bright, the director of the SPDC, who was flyingback to Atlanta after the holidays. Steve was in his mid-thirties and had a passion andcertainty that seemed the direct opposite of my ambivalence. He’d grown up on a farm inKentucky and ended up in Washington, D.C., after finishing law school. He was a brillianttrial lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and had just beenrecruited to take over the SPDC, whose mission was to assist condemned people on death rowin Georgia. He showed none of the disconnect between what he did and what he believedthat I’d seen in so many of my law professors. When we met he warmly wrapped me in a full-body hug, and then we started talking. We didn’t stop till we’d reached Atlanta.“Bryan,” he said at some point during our short flight, “capital punishment means ‘themwithout the capital get the punishment.’ We can’t help people on death row without helpfrom people like you.”I was taken aback by his immediate belief that I had something to offer. He broke down theissues with the death penalty simply but persuasively, and I hung on every word, completelyengaged by his dedication and charisma.
“I just hope you’re not expecting anything too fancy while you’re here,” he said.“Oh, no,” I assured him. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with you.”“Well, ‘opportunity’ isn’t necessarily the first word people think of when they think aboutdoing work with us. We live kind of simply, and the hours are pretty intense.”“That’s no problem for me.”“Well, actually, we might even be described as living less than simply. More like livingpoorly—maybe even barely living, struggling to hang on, surviving on the kindness ofstrangers, scraping by day by day, uncertain of the future.”I let slip a concerned look, and he laughed.“I’m just kidding … kind of.”He moved on to other subjects, but it was clear that his heart and his mind were alignedwith the plight of the condemned and those facing unjust treatment in jails and prisons. Itwas deeply affirming to meet someone whose work so powerfully animated his life.There were just a few attorneys working at the SPDC when I arrived that winter. Most ofthem were former criminal defense lawyers from Washington who had come to Georgia inresponse to a growing crisis: Death row prisoners couldn’t get lawyers. In their thirties, menand women, black and white, these lawyers were comfortable with one another in a way thatreflected a shared mission, shared hope, and shared stress about the challenges they faced.After years of prohibition and delay, executions were again taking place in the Deep South,and most of the people crowded on death row had no lawyers and no right to counsel. Therewas a growing fear that people would soon be killed without ever having their cases reviewedby skilled counsel. We were getting frantic calls every day from people who had no legalassistance but whose dates of execution were on the calendar and approaching fast. I’d neverheard voices so desperate.When I started my internship, everyone was extremely kind to me, and I felt immediatelyat home. The SPDC was located in downtown Atlanta in the Healey Building, a sixteen-storyGothic Revival structure built in the early 1900s that was in considerable decline and losingtenants. I worked in a cramped circle of desks with two lawyers and did clerical work,answering phones and researching legal questions for staff. I was just getting settled into myoffice routine when Steve asked me to go to death row to meet with a condemned man whomno one else had time to visit. He explained that the man had been on the row for over twoyears and that they didn’t yet have a lawyer to take his case; my job was to convey to thisman one simple message: You will not be killed in the next year.I drove through farmland and wooded areas of rural Georgia, rehearsing what I would saywhen I met this man. I practiced my introduction over and over.“Hello, my name is Bryan. I’m a student with the …” No. “I’m a law student with …” No.“My name is Bryan Stevenson. I’m a legal intern with the Southern Prisoners DefenseCommittee, and I’ve been instructed to inform you that you will not be executed soon.” “Youcan’t be executed soon.” “You are not at risk of execution anytime soon.” No.I continued practicing my presentation until I pulled up to the intimidating barbed-wirefence and white guard tower of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center. Around theoffice we just called it “Jackson,” so seeing the facility’s actual name on a sign was jarring—itsounded clinical, even therapeutic. I parked and found my way to the prison entrance and
walked inside the main building with its dark corridors and gated hallways, where metal barsbarricaded every access point. The interior eliminated any doubt that this was a hard place.I walked down a tunneled corridor to the legal visitation area, each step echoing ominouslyacross the spotless tiled floor. When I told the visitation officer that I was a paralegal sent tomeet with a death row prisoner, he looked at me suspiciously. I was wearing the only suit Iowned, and we could both see that it had seen better days. The officer’s eyes seemed to lingerlong and hard over my driver’s license before he tilted his head toward me to speak.“You’re not local.”It was more of a statement than a question.“No, sir. Well, I’m working in Atlanta.” After calling the warden’s office to confirm that myvisit had been properly scheduled, he finally admitted me, brusquely directing me to thesmall room where the visit would take place. “Don’t get lost in here; we don’t promise tocome and find you,” he warned.The visitation room was twenty feet square with a few stools bolted to the floor. Everythingin the room was made of metal and secured. In front of the stools, wire mesh ran from a smallledge up to a ceiling twelve feet high. The room was an empty cage until I walked into it. Forfamily visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh interior wall; theyspoke to one another through the wires of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were“contact visits”—the two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit moreprivacy. The room was small and, although I knew it couldn’t be true, it felt like it wasgetting smaller by the second. I began worrying again about my lack of preparation. I’dscheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasn’t sure how I’d fill even fifteenminutes with what I knew. I sat down on one of the stools and waited. After fifteen minutesof growing anxiety, I finally heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door.The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me, his facescrewed up in a worried wince, and he quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. Hedidn’t move far from the room’s entrance, as if he didn’t really want to enter the visitationroom. He was a young, neatly groomed African American man with short hair—clean-shaven,medium frame and build—wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediatelyfamiliar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with, friends from school, people I played sports ormusic with, someone I’d talk to on the street about the weather. The guard slowly unchainedhim, removing his handcuffs and the shackles around his ankles, and then locked eyes withme and told me I had one hour. The officer seemed to sense that both the prisoner and I werenervous and to take some pleasure in our discomfort, grinning at me before turning on hisheel and leaving the room. The metal door banged loudly behind him and reverberatedthrough the small space.The condemned man didn’t come any closer, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I walkedover and offered him my hand. He shook it cautiously. We sat down and he spoke first.“I’m Henry,” he said.“I’m very sorry” were the first words I blurted out. Despite all my preparations andrehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly.“I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, okay, I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student,I’m not a real lawyer.… I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”The man looked at me worriedly. “Is everything all right with my case?”
“Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at SPDC sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyeryet.… I mean, we don’t have a lawyer for you yet, but you’re not at risk of execution anytimein the next year.… We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer, and we hope thelawyer will be down to see you in the next few months. I’m just a law student. I’m reallyhappy to help, I mean, if there’s something I can do.”The man interrupted my chatter by quickly grabbing my hands.“I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year before you get an execution date.” Thosewords didn’t sound very comforting to me. But Henry just squeezed my hands tighter andtighter.“Thank you, man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news.” His shoulders unhunched,and he looked at me with intense relief in his eyes.“You are the first person I’ve met in over two years after coming to death row who is notanother death row prisoner or a death row guard. I’m so glad you’re here, and I’m so glad toget this news.” He exhaled loudly and seemed to relax.“I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit meor bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. I justdon’t want them here like that. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thankyou!”I was astonished that he was so happy. I relaxed, too, and we began to talk. It turned outthat we were exactly the same age. Henry asked me questions about myself, and I asked himabout his life. Within an hour we were both lost in conversation. We talked about everything.He told me about his family, and he told me about his trial. He asked me about law schooland my family. We talked about music, we talked about prison, we talked about what’simportant in life and what’s not. I was completely absorbed in our conversation. We laughedat times, and there were moments when he was very emotional and sad. We kept talking andtalking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I’d stayed waypast my allotted time for the legal visit. I looked at my watch. I’d been there three hours.The guard came in and he was angry. He snarled at me, “You should have been done a longtime ago. You have to leave.”He began handcuffing Henry, pulling his hands together behind his back and locking themthere. Then he roughly shackled Henry’s ankles. The guard was so angry he put the cuffs ontoo tight. I could see Henry grimacing with pain.I said, “I think those cuffs are on too tight. Can you loosen them, please?”“I told you: You need to leave. You don’t tell me how to do my job.”Henry gave me a smile and said, “It’s okay, Bryan. Don’t worry about this. Just come backand see me again, okay?” I could see him wince with each click of the chains being tightenedaround his waist.I must have looked pretty distraught. Henry kept saying, “Don’t worry, Bryan, don’t worry.Come back, okay?”As the officer pushed him toward the door, Henry turned back to look at me.I started mumbling, “I’m really sorry. I’m really sor—”“Don’t worry about this, Bryan,” he said, cutting me off. “Just come back.”I looked at him and struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring,
something that expressed my gratitude to him for being so patient with me. But I couldn’tthink of anything to say. Henry looked at me and smiled. The guard was shoving him towardthe door roughly. I didn’t like the way Henry was being treated, but he continued to smileuntil, just before the guard could push him fully out of the room, he planted his feet to resistthe officer’s shoving. He looked so calm. Then he did something completely unexpected. Iwatched him close his eyes and tilt his head back. I was confused by what he was doing, butthen he opened his mouth and I understood. He began to sing. He had a tremendous baritonevoice that was strong and clear. It startled both me and the guard, who stopped his pushing.I’m pressing on, the upward wayNew heights I’m gaining, every dayStill praying as, I’m onward boundLord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in the church where I grew up. I hadn’theard it in years. Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction. It took amoment before the officer recovered and resumed pushing him out the door. Because hisankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, Henry almost stumbledwhen the guard shoved him forward. He had to waddle to keep his balance, but he kept onsinging. I could hear him as he went down the hall:Lord lift me up, and let me standBy faith on Heaven’s tablelandA higher plane, that I have foundLord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.I sat down, completely stunned. Henry’s voice was filled with desire. I experienced his songas a precious gift. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingnessto tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had noright to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishingmeasure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding ofhuman potential, redemption, and hopefulness.I finished my internship committed to helping the death row prisoners I had met thatmonth. Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’shumanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own. I went back to law school with anintense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty andextreme punishments. I piled up courses on constitutional law, litigation, appellate procedure,federal courts, and collateral remedies. I did extra work to broaden my understanding of howconstitutional theory shapes criminal procedure. I plunged deeply into the law and thesociology of race, poverty, and power. Law school had seemed abstract and disconnectedbefore, but after meeting the desperate and imprisoned, it all became relevant and criticallyimportant. Even my studies at the Kennedy School took on a new significance. Developing theskills to quantify and deconstruct the discrimination and inequality I saw became urgent andmeaningful.My short time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat
people in our judicial system, that maybe we judge some people unfairly. The more Ireflected on the experience, the more I recognized that I had been struggling my whole lifewith the question of how and why people are judged unfairly.I grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement on the eastern shore of the DelmarvaPeninsula, in Delaware, where the racial history of this country casts a long shadow. Thecoastal communities that stretched from Virginia and eastern Maryland to lower Delawarewere unapologetically Southern. Many people in the region insisted on a racialized hierarchythat required symbols, markers, and constant reinforcement, in part because of the area’sproximity to the North. Confederate flags were proudly displayed throughout the region,boldly and defiantly marking the cultural, social, and political landscape.African Americans lived in racially segregated ghettos isolated by railroad tracks withinsmall towns or in “colored sections” in the country. I grew up in a country settlement wheresome people lived in tiny shacks; families without indoor plumbing had to use outhouses. Weshared our outdoor play space with chickens and pigs.The black people around me were strong and determined but marginalized and excluded.The poultry plant bus came each day to pick up adults and take them to the factory wherethey would daily pluck, hack, and process thousands of chickens. My father left the area as ateenager because there was no local high school for black children. He returned with mymother and found work in a food factory; on weekends he did domestic work at beachcottages and rentals. My mother had a civilian job at an Air Force base. It seemed that wewere all cloaked in an unwelcome garment of racial difference that constrained, confined,and restricted us.My relatives worked hard all the time but never seemed to prosper. My grandfather wasmurdered when I was a teenager, but it didn’t seem to matter much to the world outside ourfamily.My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved in Caroline County,Virginia. She was born in the 1880s, her parents in the 1840s. Her father talked to her all thetime about growing up in slavery and how he learned to read and write but kept it a secret.He hid the things he knew—until Emancipation. The legacy of slavery very much shaped mygrandmother and the way she raised her nine children. It influenced the way she talked tome, the way she constantly told me to “Keep close.”When I visited her, she would hug me so tightly I could barely breathe. After a little while,she would ask me, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?” If I said yes, she’d let me be; if Isaid no, she would assault me again. I said no a lot because it made me happy to be wrappedin her formidable arms. She never tired of pulling me to her.“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to getclose,” she told me all the time.The distance I experienced in my first year of law school made me feel lost. Proximity tothe condemned, to people unfairly judged; that was what guided me back to something thatfelt like home.This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.
It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create whenwe allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.It’s also about a dramatic period in our recent history, a period that indelibly marked thelives of millions of Americans—of all races, ages, and sexes—and the American psyche as awhole.When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of aradical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nationand result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highestrate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 peoplein the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people onprobation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 isexpected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century isexpected to be incarcerated.We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people tocarry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row.Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quartermillion kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age oftwelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to lifeimprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die inprison.Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades inprison. We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft orminor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared acostly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than a half-millionpeople in state or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980.We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like “Three strikes andyou’re out” to communicate our toughness. We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education, andservices for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently tookind and compassionate. We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worstacts and permanently label them “criminal,” “murderer,” “rapist,” “thief,” “drug dealer,” “sexoffender,” “felon”—identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of theircrimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.The collateral consequences of mass incarceration have been equally profound. We banpoor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing ifthey have prior drug convictions. We have created a new caste system that forces thousandsof people into homelessness, bans them from living with their families and in theircommunities, and renders them virtually unemployable. Some states permanently strip peoplewith criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several Southern statesdisenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before theVoting Rights Act of 1965.We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after beingsentenced to death and nearly executed. Hundreds more have been released after beingproved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guilt, poverty,racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system
that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.Finally, we spend lots of money. Spending on jails and prisons by state and federalgovernments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prisonbuilders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state andlocal governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more peoplelocked up so that they can earn more profits. Private profit has corrupted incentives toimprove public safety, reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promoterehabilitation of the incarcerated. State governments have been forced to shift funds frompublic services, education, health, and welfare to pay for incarceration, and they now faceunprecedented economic crises as a result. The privatization of prison health care, prisoncommerce, and a range of services has made mass incarceration a money-making windfall fora few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, theincarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, I’ve gotten close to people whohave been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillian. In thisbook you will learn the story of Walter’s case, which taught me about our system’s disturbingindifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance ofunfair prosecutions and convictions. Walter’s experience taught me how our systemtraumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemnirresponsibly—not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even thevictims of crime. But Walter’s case also taught me something else: that there is light withinthis darkness.Walter’s story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. I’ve represented abusedand neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse andmistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. I’ve represented women, whose numbers inprison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria aboutdrug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecutepoor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. I’ve represented mentally disabled people whoseillnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. I’ve gotten close to victims of violentcrime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of massimprisonment—prison staff—have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and lessjust and merciful.I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggleto recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemnedand incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration thatcome to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Eachof us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarceratedhas persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty isjustice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, thecharacter of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot bemeasured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us.The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the
incarcerated, and the condemned.We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence ofcompassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger canmake us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence ofmercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to massincarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognizethat we all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure ofunmerited grace.
OneMockingbird PlayersThe temporary receptionist was an elegant African American woman wearing a dark,expensive business suit—a well-dressed exception to the usual crowd at the SouthernPrisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta, where I had returned after graduation towork full time. On her first day, I’d rambled over to her in my regular uniform of jeans andsneakers and offered to answer any questions she might have to help her get acclimated. Shelooked at me coolly and waved me away after reminding me that she was, in fact, anexperienced legal secretary. The next morning, when I arrived at work in another jeans andsneakers ensemble, she seemed startled, as if some strange vagrant had made a wrong turninto the office. She took a beat to compose herself, then summoned me over to confide thatshe was leaving in a week to work at a “real law office.” I wished her luck. An hour later, shecalled my office to tell me that “Robert E. Lee” was on the phone. I smiled, pleased that I’dmisjudged her; she clearly had a sense of humor.“That’s really funny.”“I’m not joking. That’s what he said,” she said, sounding bored, not playful. “Line two.”I picked up the line.“Hello, this is Bryan Stevenson. May I help you?”“Bryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you want to represent someonelike Walter McMillian? Do you know he’s reputed to be one of the biggest drug dealers in allof South Alabama? I got your notice entering an appearance, but you don’t want anything todo with this case.”“Sir?”“This is Judge Key, and you don’t want to have anything to do with this McMillian case. Noone really understands how depraved this situation truly is, including me, but I know it’sugly. These men might even be Dixie Mafia.”The lecturing tone and bewildering phrases from a judge I’d never met left me completelyconfused. “Dixie Mafia”? I’d met Walter McMillian two weeks earlier, after spending a day ondeath row to begin work on five capital cases. I hadn’t reviewed the trial transcript yet, but Idid remember that the judge’s last name was Key. No one had told me the Robert E. Lee part.
I struggled for an image of “Dixie Mafia” that would fit Walter McMillian.“ ‘Dixie Mafia’?”“Yes, and there’s no telling what else. Now, son, I’m just not going to appoint some out-of-state lawyer who’s not a member of the Alabama bar to take on one of these death penaltycases, so you just go ahead and withdraw.”“I’m a member of the Alabama bar.”I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, but I had been admitted to the Alabama bar a year earlier afterworking on some cases in Alabama concerning jail and prison conditions.“Well, I’m now sitting in Mobile. I’m not up in Monroeville anymore. If we have a hearingon your motion, you’re going to have to come all the way from Atlanta to Mobile. I’m notgoing to accommodate you no kind of way.”“I understand, sir. I can come to Mobile, if necessary.”“Well, I’m also not going to appoint you because I don’t think he’s indigent. He’s reportedto have money buried all over Monroe County.”“Judge, I’m not seeking appointment. I’ve told Mr. McMillian that we would—” The dialtone interrupted my first affirmative statement of the phone call. I spent several minutesthinking we’d been accidentally disconnected before finally realizing that a judge had justhung up on me.I was in my late twenties and about to start my fourth year at the SPDC when I met WalterMcMillian. His case was one of the flood of cases I’d found myself frantically working on afterlearning of a growing crisis in Alabama. The state had nearly a hundred people on death rowas well as the fastest-growing condemned population in the country, but it also had no publicdefender system, which meant that large numbers of death row prisoners had no legalrepresentation of any kind. My friend Eva Ansley ran an Alabama prison project, whichtracked cases and matched lawyers with the condemned men. In 1988, we discovered anopportunity to get federal funding to create a legal center that could represent people ondeath row. The plan was to use that funding to start a new nonprofit. We hoped to open it inTuscaloosa and begin working on cases in the next year. I’d already worked on lots of deathpenalty cases in several Southern states, sometimes winning a stay of execution just minutesbefore an electrocution was scheduled. But I didn’t think I was ready to take on theresponsibilities of running a nonprofit law office. I planned to help get the organization offthe ground, find a director, and then return to Atlanta.When I’d visited death row a few weeks before that call from Robert E. Lee Key, I met withfive desperate condemned men: Willie Tabb, Vernon Madison, Jesse Morrison, Harry Nicks,and Walter McMillian. It was an exhausting, emotionally taxing day, and the cases and clientshad merged together in my mind on the long drive back to Atlanta. But I remembered Walter.He was at least fifteen years older than me, not particularly well educated, and he hailedfrom a small rural community. The memorable thing about him was how insistent he wasthat he’d been wrongly convicted.“Mr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but it’s important to me that you know thatI’m innocent and didn’t do what they said I did, not no kinda way,” he told me in the meetingroom. His voice was level but laced with emotion. I nodded to him. I had learned to acceptwhat clients tell me until the facts suggest something else.
“Sure, of course I understand. When I review the record I’ll have a better sense of whatevidence they have, and we can talk about it.”“But … look, I’m sure I’m not the first person on death row to tell you that they’reinnocent, but I really need you to believe me. My life has been ruined! This lie they put onme is more than I can bear, and if I don’t get help from someone who believes me—”His lip began to quiver, and he clenched his fists to stop himself from crying. I sat quietlywhile he forced himself back into composure.“I’m sorry, I know you’ll do everything you can to help me,” he said, his voice quieter. Myinstinct was to comfort him; his pain seemed so sincere. But there wasn’t much I could do,and after several hours on the row talking to so many people, I could muster only enoughenergy to reassure him that I would look at everything carefully.I had several transcripts piled up in my small Atlanta office ready to move to Tuscaloosa oncethe office opened. With Judge Robert E. Lee Key’s peculiar comments still running throughmy head, I went through the mound of records until I found the transcripts from WalterMcMillian’s trial. There were only four volumes of trial proceedings, which meant that thetrial had been short. The judge’s dramatic warnings now made Mr. McMillian’s emotionalclaim of innocence too intriguing to put off any longer. I started reading.Even though he had lived in Monroe County his whole life, Walter McMillian had never heardof Harper Lee or To Kill a Mockingbird. Monroeville, Alabama, celebrated its native daughterLee shamelessly after her award-winning book became a national bestseller in the 1960s. Shereturned to Monroe County but secluded herself and was rarely seen in public. Herreclusiveness proved no barrier to the county’s continued efforts to market her literary classic—or to market itself by using the book’s celebrity. Production of the film adaptation broughtGregory Peck to town for the infamous courtroom scenes; his performance won him anAcademy Award. Local leaders later turned the old courthouse into a “Mockingbird” museum.A group of locals formed “The Mockingbird Players of Monroeville” to present a stage versionof the story. The production was so popular that national and international tours wereorganized to provide an authentic presentation of the fictional story to audiences everywhere.Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root.The story of an innocent black man bravely defended by a white lawyer in the 1930sfascinated millions of readers, despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations ofrape involving a white woman. Lee’s endearing characters, Atticus Finch and his precociousdaughter, Scout, captivated readers while confronting them with some of the realities of raceand justice in the South. A generation of future lawyers grew up hoping to become thecourageous Atticus, who at one point arms himself to protect the defenseless black suspectfrom an angry mob of white men looking to lynch him.Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fictional lawyer’s name tocelebrate the model of advocacy described in Lee’s novel. What is often overlooked is that theblack man falsely accused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. TomRobinson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he dies when, full ofdespair, he makes a desperate attempt to escape from prison. He is shot seventeen times in
the back by his captors, dying ingloriously but not unlawfully.Walter McMillian, like Tom Robinson, grew up in one of several poor black settlementsoutside of Monroeville, where he worked the fields with his family before he was old enoughto attend school. The children of sharecroppers in southern Alabama were introduced to“plowin’, plantin’, and pickin’ ” as soon as they were old enough to be useful in the fields.Educational opportunities for black children in the 1950s were limited, but Walter’s mothergot him to the dilapidated “colored school” for a couple of years when he was young. By thetime Walter was eight or nine, he became too valuable for picking cotton to justify the remoteadvantages of going to school. By the age of eleven, Walter could run a plow as well as any ofhis older siblings.Times were changing—for better and for worse. Monroe County had been developed byplantation owners in the nineteenth century for the production of cotton. Situated in thecoastal plain of southwest Alabama, the fertile, rich black soil of the area attracted whitesettlers from the Carolinas who amassed very successful plantations and a huge slavepopulation. For decades after the Civil War, the large African American population toiled inthe fields of the “Black Belt” as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, dependent on whitelandowners for survival. In the 1940s, thousands of African Americans left the region as partof the Great Migration and headed mostly to the Midwest and West Coast for jobs. Those whoremained continued to work the land, but the out-migration of African Americans combinedwith other factors to make traditional agriculture less sustainable as the economic base of theregion.By the 1950s, small cotton farming was becoming increasingly less profitable, even withthe low-wage labor provided by black sharecroppers and tenants. The State of Alabamaagreed to help white landowners in the region transition to timber farming and forestproducts by providing extraordinary tax incentives for pulp and paper mills. Thirteen of thestate’s sixteen pulp and paper mills were opened during this period. Across the Black Belt,more and more acres were converted to growing pine trees for paper mills and industrialuses. African Americans, largely excluded from this new industry, found themselvesconfronting new economic challenges even as they won basic civil rights. The brutal era ofsharecropping and Jim Crow was ending, but what followed was persistent unemploymentand worsening poverty. The region’s counties remained some of the poorest in America.Walter was smart enough to see the trend. He started his own pulpwood business thatevolved with the timber industry in the 1970s. He astutely—and bravely—borrowed moneyto buy his own power saw, tractor, and pulpwood truck. By the 1980s, he had developed asolid business that didn’t generate a lot of extra money but afforded him a gratifying degreeof independence. If he had worked at the mill or the factory or had had some other unskilledjob—the kind that most poor black people in South Alabama worked—it would invariablymean working for white business owners and dealing with all the racial stress that thatimplied in Alabama in the 1970s and 1980s. Walter couldn’t escape the reality of racism, buthaving his own business in a growing sector of the economy gave him a latitude that manyAfrican Americans did not enjoy.That independence won Walter some measure of respect and admiration, but it alsocultivated contempt and suspicion, especially outside of Monroeville’s black community.Walter’s freedom was, for some of the white people in town, well beyond what African
Americans with limited education were able to achieve through legitimate means. Still, hewas pleasant, respectful, generous, and accommodating, which made him well liked by thepeople with whom he did business, whether black or white.Walter was not without his flaws. He had long been known as a ladies’ man. Even thoughhe had married young and had three children with his wife, Minnie, it was well known thathe was romantically involved with other women. “Tree work” is notoriously demanding anddangerous. With few ordinary comforts in his life, the attention of women was somethingWalter did not easily resist. There was something about his rough exterior—his bushy longhair and uneven beard—combined with his generous and charming nature that attracted theattention of some women.Walter grew up understanding how forbidden it was for a black man to be intimate with awhite woman, but by the 1980s he had allowed himself to imagine that such matters mightbe changing. Perhaps if he hadn’t been successful enough to live off his own business hewould have more consistently kept in mind those racial lines that could never be crossed. Asit was, Walter didn’t initially think much of the flirtations of Karen Kelly, a young whitewoman he’d met at the Waffle House where he ate breakfast. She was attractive, but he didn’ttake her too seriously. When her flirtations became more explicit, Walter hesitated, and thenpersuaded himself that no one would ever know.After a few weeks, it became clear that his relationship with Karen was trouble. At twenty-five, Karen was eighteen years younger than Walter, and she was married. As word gotaround that the two were “friends,” she seemed to take a titillating pride in her intimacy withWalter. When her husband found out, things quickly turned ugly. Karen and her husband,Joe, had long been unhappy and were already planning to divorce, but her scandalousinvolvement with a black man outraged Karen’s husband and his entire family. He initiatedlegal proceedings to gain custody of their children and became intent on publicly disgracinghis wife by exposing her infidelity and revealing her relationship with a black man.For his part, Walter had always stayed clear of the courts and far away from the law. Yearsearlier, he had been drawn into a bar fight that resulted in a misdemeanor conviction and anight in jail. It was the first and only time he had ever been in trouble. From that point on, hehad no exposure to the criminal justice system.When Walter received a subpoena from Karen Kelly’s husband to testify at a hearing wherethe Kellys would be fighting over their children’s custody, he knew it was going to cause himserious problems. Unable to consult with his wife, Minnie, who had a better head for thesekinds of crises, he nervously went to the courthouse. The lawyer for Kelly’s husband calledWalter to the stand. Walter had decided to acknowledge being a “friend” of Karen. Herlawyer objected to the crude questions posed to Walter by the husband’s attorney about thenature of his friendship, sparing him from providing any details, but when he left thecourtroom the anger and animosity toward him were palpable. Walter wanted to forget aboutthe whole ordeal, but word spread quickly, and his reputation shifted. No longer the hard-working pulpwood man, known to white people almost exclusively for what he could do witha saw in the pine trees, Walter now represented something more worrisome.Fears of interracial sex and marriage have deep roots in the United States. The confluence ofrace and sex was a powerful force in dismantling Reconstruction after the Civil War,
sustaining Jim Crow laws for a century and fueling divisive racial politics throughout thetwentieth century. In the aftermath of slavery, the creation of a system of racial hierarchy andsegregation was largely designed to prevent intimate relationships like Walter and Karen’s—relationships that were, in fact, legally prohibited by “anti-miscegenation statutes” (the wordmiscegenation came into use in the 1860s, when supporters of slavery coined the term topromote the fear of interracial sex and marriage and the race mixing that would result ifslavery was abolished). For over a century, law enforcement officials in many Southerncommunities absolutely saw it as part of their duty to investigate and punish black men whohad been intimate with white women.Although the federal government had promised racial equality for freed former slavesduring the short period of Reconstruction, the return of white supremacy and racialsubordination came quickly after federal troops left Alabama in the 1870s. Voting rights weretaken away from African Americans, and a series of racially restrictive laws enforced theracial hierarchy. “Racial integrity” laws were part of a plan to replicate slavery’s racialhierarchy and reestablish the subordination of African Americans. Having criminalizedinterracial sex and marriage, states throughout the South would use the laws to justify theforced sterilization of poor and minority women. Forbidding sex between white women andblack men became an intense preoccupation throughout the South.In the 1880s, a few years before lynching became the standard response to interracialromance and a century before Walter and Karen Kelly began their affair, Tony Pace, anAfrican American man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, fell in love in Alabama. They werearrested and convicted, and both were sentenced to two years in prison for violatingAlabama’s racial integrity laws. John Tompkins, a lawyer and part of a small minority ofwhite professionals who considered the racial integrity laws to be unconstitutional, agreed torepresent Tony and Mary to appeal their convictions. The Alabama Supreme Court reviewedthe case in 1882. With rhetoric that would be quoted frequently over the next severaldecades, Alabama’s highest court affirmed the convictions, using language that dripped withcontempt for the idea of interracial romance:The evil tendency of the crime [of adultery or fornication] is greater when committed between persons of the two races.… Its result may be the amalgamation of the two races, producing a mongrel population and a degraded civilization, theprevention of which is dictated by a sound policy affecting the highest interests of society and government.The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the Alabama court’s decision. Using “separate but equal”language that previewed the Court’s infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson twenty yearslater, the Court unanimously upheld Alabama’s restrictions on interracial sex and marriageand affirmed the prison terms imposed on Tony Pace and Mary Cox. Following the Court’sdecision, more states passed racial integrity laws that made it illegal for African Americans,and sometimes Native Americans and Asian Americans, to marry or have sex with whites.While the restrictions were aggressively enforced in the South, they were also common in theMidwest and West. The State of Idaho banned interracial marriage and sex between whiteand black people in 1921 even though the state’s population was 99.8 percent nonblack.It wasn’t until 1967 that the United States Supreme Court finally struck down anti-miscegenation statutes in Loving v. Virginia, but restrictions on interracial marriage persistedeven after that landmark ruling. Alabama’s state constitution still prohibited the practice in
1986 when Walter met Karen Kelly. Section 102 of the state constitution read:The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro ordescendant of a Negro.No one expected a relatively successful and independent man like Walter to follow everyrule. Occasionally drinking too much, getting into a fight, or even having an extramaritalaffair—these weren’t indiscretions significant enough to destroy the reputation and standingof an honest and industrious black man who could be trusted to do good work. But interracialdating, particularly with a married white woman, was for many whites, an unconscionableact. In the South, crimes like murder or assault might send you to prison, but interracial sexwas a transgression in its own unique category of danger with correspondingly extremepunishments. Hundreds of black men have been lynched for even unsubstantiated suggestionsof such intimacy.Walter didn’t know the legal history, but like every black man in Alabama he knew deep inhis bones the perils of interracial romance. Nearly a dozen people had been lynched inMonroe County alone since its incorporation. Dozens of additional lynchings had taken placein neighboring counties—and the true power of those lynchings far exceeded their number.They were acts of terror more than anything else, inspiring fear that any encounter with awhite person, any interracial social misstep, any unintended slight, any ill-advised look orcomment could trigger a gruesome and lethal response.Walter heard his parents and relatives talk about lynchings when he was a young child.When he was twelve, the body of Russell Charley, a black man from Monroe County, wasfound hanging from a tree in Vredenburgh, Alabama. The lynching of Charley, who wasknown by Walter’s family, was believed to have been prompted by an interracial romance.Walter remembered well the terror that shot through the black community in Monroe Countywhen Charley’s lifeless, bullet-ridden body was found swinging in a tree.And now it seemed to Walter that everyone in Monroe County was talking about his ownrelationship with Karen Kelly. It worried him in a way that few things ever had.A few weeks later, an even more unthinkable act shocked Monroeville. In the late morning ofNovember 1, 1986, Ronda Morrison, the beautiful young daughter of a respected local family,was found dead on the floor of Monroe Cleaners, the shop where the eighteen-year-oldcollege student had worked. She had been shot in the back three times.Murder was uncommon in Monroeville. An apparent robbery-murder in a populardowntown business was unprecedented. The death of young Ronda was a crime unlikeanything the community had ever experienced. She was popular, an only child, and by allaccounts without blemish. She was the kind of girl whom the entire white communityembraced as a daughter. The police initially believed that no one from the community, blackor white, would have done something so horrific.Two Latino men had been spotted in Monroeville looking for work the day RondaMorrison’s body was found, and they became the first suspects. Police tracked them down inFlorida and determined that the two men could not have committed the murder. The formerowner of the cleaners, an older white man named Miles Jackson, fell under suspicion, butthere was no evidence that pointed to him as a killer. The current owner of the cleaners, Rick
Blair, was questioned but considered an unlikely suspect. Within a few weeks, the police hadtapped out their leads.People in Monroe County began to whisper about the incompetence of the police. Whenthere were still no arrests several months later, the whispers became louder, and publiccriticisms of the police, sheriff, and local prosecutor were aired in the local newspaper and onlocal radio stations. Tom Tate was elected the new county sheriff days after the murder tookplace, and folks started to question whether he was up to the job. The Alabama Bureau ofInvestigation (ABI) was called in to investigate the murder but achieved no more successsolving the crime than local officials had. People in Monroeville became anxious. Localbusinesses posted rewards offering thousands of dollars for information leading to an arrest.Gun sales, which were always robust, increased.Meanwhile, Walter was wrestling with his own problems. He had been trying for weeks toend his relationship with Karen Kelly. The child custody proceedings and public scandal hadtaken a toll on her; she had started using drugs and seemed to fall apart. She began toassociate with Ralph Myers, a white man with a badly disfigured face and lengthy criminalrecord who seemed to perfectly embody her fall from grace. Ralph was an unusual partner forKaren, but she was in such serious decline that nothing she did made any sense to her friendsand family. The relationship brought Karen to rock bottom, beyond scandal and drug use intoserious criminal behavior. Together they became involved in dealing drugs and wereimplicated in the murder of Vickie Lynn Pittman, a young woman from neighboring EscambiaCounty.Police had quick success in investigating the Pittman murder, rapidly concluding that RalphMyers had been involved. When the police interrogated Ralph, they encountered a man aspsychologically complicated as he was physically scarred. He was emotional and frail, and hecraved attention—his only effective defense was his skill in manipulation and misdirection.Ralph believed that everything he said had to be epic, shocking, and elaborate. As a childliving in foster care, he had been horribly burned in a fire. The burns so scarred anddisfigured his face and neck that he needed multiple surgeries to regain basic functioning. Hebecame quite used to strangers staring at his scars with pained expressions on their faces. Hewas a tragic outcast who lived on the margins, but he tried to compensate by pretending tohave inside knowledge about all sorts of mysteries.After initially denying any direct involvement in the Pittman murder, Myers conceded thathe may have played some accidental role but quickly put the blame for the murder itself onmore interesting local figures. He first accused a black man with a bad reputation namedIsaac Dailey, but the police quickly discovered that Dailey had been in a jail cell on the nightof the murder. Myers then confessed that he had made up the story because the true killerwas none other than the elected sheriff of a nearby county.As outrageous as the claim was, ABI agents appeared to take it seriously. They asked himmore questions, but the more Myers talked, the less credible his story sounded. Officialsbegan to suspect that Myers was the sole killer and was desperately trying to implicate othersto minimize his culpability.While the death of Vickie Pittman was news, it failed to compare with the continuingmystery surrounding the death of Ronda Morrison. Vickie came from a poor white family,
several of whose members were incarcerated; she enjoyed none of the status of RondaMorrison. The Morrison murder remained the focus of everyone’s attention for months.Ralph Myers was illiterate, but he knew that it was the Morrison crime that waspreoccupying law enforcement investigators. When his allegations against the sheriff didn’tseem to be going anywhere, he changed his story again and told investigators that he hadbeen involved in the murder of Vickie Pittman along with Karen Kelly and her blackboyfriend, Walter McMillian. But that wasn’t all. He also told police that McMillian wasresponsible for the murder of Ronda Morrison. That assertion attracted the full attention oflaw enforcement officials.It soon became apparent that Walter McMillian had never met Ralph Myers, let alonecommitted two murders with him. To prove that the two of them were in cahoots, an ABIagent asked Myers to meet Walter McMillian at a store while agents monitored theinteraction. It had been several months since Ronda Morrison’s murder.Once Myers entered the store, he was not able to identify Walter McMillian among severalblack men present (he had to ask the owner of the store to point McMillian out). He thendelivered a note to McMillian, purportedly written by Karen Kelly. According to witnesses,Walter seemed confused both by Myers, a man he had never seen before, and the note itself.Walter threw the note away and went back to what he was doing. He paid little attention tothe whole odd encounter.The monitoring ABI agents were left with nothing to suggest any relationship betweenMyers and McMillian and plenty of evidence indicating that the two men had never met. Still,they persisted with the McMillian theory. Time was passing—seven months, by this time—and the community was fearful and angry. Criticism was mounting. They desperately neededan arrest.Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate did not have much law enforcement experience. By hisown description he was “very local” and took great pride in never having ventured too farfrom Monroeville. Now, four months into his term as sheriff, he faced a seemingly unsolvablemurder and intense public pressure. When Myers told police about McMillian’s relationshipwith Karen Kelly, it’s likely that the infamous interracial affair was already well known toTate as a result of the Kelly custody hearings that had generated so much gossip. But therewas no evidence against McMillian—no evidence except that he was an African Americanman involved in an adulterous interracial affair, which meant he was reckless and possiblydangerous, even if he had no prior criminal history and a good reputation. Maybe that wasevidence enough. Even though the restriction couldn’t be enforced under federal law, the state ban on interracial marriage in Alabamacontinued into the twenty-first century. In 2000, reformers finally had enough votes to get the issue on the statewide ballot,where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it. A 2011 poll of MississippiRepublicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage, 40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percentare undecided.