Today, on International Human Rights Day, we are closing out our U.S. criminal justice reform blog series with a post by Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His post is an essay adapted from his best selling book, Just Mercy. In it, he reflects on an experience from his law school days and the impact it had on the trajectory of his career. To view the entire blog series, click here.
We’ve chosen to focus on U.S. criminal justice reform on International Human Rights Day because we believe that the failure to face our history and reform abusive policies and practices reinforces a corrosive legacy affecting domestic legitimacy; and thus, our ability to advance international human rights norms abroad. It is our hope that by putting the U.S. criminal justice system in the spotlight, we join an important conversation with humanity, human dignity and freedom at its core.
The Man on Death Row Who Changed Me
The visitation room was 100 feet square, with a few stools bolted to the floor and wire mesh running across the room. For family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides 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 more privacy. I began worrying about my lack of preparation. I had scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasn’t sure how I would fill even 15 minutes with what I knew. I sat down on a stool and waited until I 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 and quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He was a young, neatly groomed African-American man with short hair — clean-shaven, medium build — wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar, like everyone I grew up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone I’d talk to on the street. As the guard left, the metal door banged loudly behind him.
I walked over and offered my hand. The man, who had been convicted of murder, shook it cautiously. We sat down.
“I’m very sorry,” I blurted out. “I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, O.K., I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student, I’m not a real lawyer.” Despite all my preparations and rehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly. “I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”
He looked at me, worried. “Is everything all right with my case?”
“Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at S.P.D.C. sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer yet,” I said. “But you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer.”
He interrupted my chatter by 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.” Those words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But he just squeezed my hands tighter.
“Thank you, man,” he said. “I mean, really, thank you! I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you!”
I was astonished. We began to talk. It turned out that he and I were exactly the same age. He told me about his family and his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music and about prison. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I had stayed long past my allotted time. I looked at my watch. I had been there three hours.
The guard came in and began handcuffing him; I could see the prisoner grimacing. “I think those cuffs are on too tight,” I said.
“It’s O.K., Bryan,” he said. “Don’t worry about this. Just come back and see me again, O.K.?”
I struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring. He looked at me and smiled. Then he did something completely unexpected. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. I was confused, but then he opened his mouth, and I understood. He had a tremendous baritone that was strong and clear.
Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in church where I grew up. I hadn’t heard it in years. Because his ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, he almost stumbled when the guard shoved him forward. But he kept on singing.
His voice was filled with desire. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. But that day, I could hear him as he went down the hall, until the echo of his earnest, soaring voice faded. When it had gone, the still silence of that space sounded different from when I entered. Even today, after 30 years of defending death-row prisoners, I still hear him.
Bryan Stevenson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Mr. Stevenson has successfully argued several cases in the United States Supreme Court and recently won an historic ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. Read more >>