Death Row Justice
Last year, the state of Alabama executed more death row prisoners than any other state per capita. In all, 26 men and one woman were put to death, with nearly 50 percent of the group 19 years old or younger, the youngest being 16. For Bryan Stevenson, a 1985 Harvard Law School and Kennedy School MPP graduate who has spent the past 15 years trying to prevent executions, the statistics are sobering, but not a deterrent from the work he calls his "call to justice."
"I am humbled by the difficulties, but not broken by them," said Stevenson. "We are still struggling, but justice is a constant struggle."
Few know this better than Stevenson, who serves as the executive director of Alabama's Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to represent prisoners on death row who cannot afford legal aid, as well as promoting fair and equal legal representation to poor and minority populations often overlooked by the system. To date, Stevenson's organization has either won reversals or had the death penalty overturned in 60 to 70 cases, in some instances winning the release of the client or gaining a new trial that resulted in a lesser sentence. A good showing, admits Stevenson, though his Equal Justice Initiative is currently handling 105 death row cases and 13 non-capital cases an overwhelming docket for a staff of five lawyers, two fellows from New York University Law School, and five support staffers.
"At times the work is very discouraging," said Stevenson. "Still, we are energized by this work. While you have many difficult moments and difficult days, there are also moments when you create hope for those who are hopeless, you create this possibility for redemption. That can be tremendously inspiring.
"I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."
His drive to enter this struggle dates back to his early days as a boy in southern Delaware, growing up in a small town called Milton, a community that remained segregated later than most in the Northeast region. Stevenson lived in a black settlement and attended the school for "colored" children until the second grade, when it closed and the local schools were integrated. Still, he vividly remembers the separateness of it all the schools, the playgrounds, the churches. But it was the murder of his grandfather that illustrated for him the separateness of the American legal system.
Stevenson, who was 16 at the time, said his grandfather lived in a poor section of Philadelphia. Though the killer was apprehended, he received a light sentence for a crime that was not held in high regard.
"I saw what happened in my grandfather's case as part of a larger problem in America," said Stevenson. "We tend to value crime differently depending on the status of the victim." And, he added, the status of the criminal. "I genuinely believe that the American criminal justice system treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent."
One of the larger problems Stevenson is trying to solve, among many others, is representation of those facing execution who have no other options. Approximately 3,700 men and women sit on death row in the United States, and hundreds don't have lawyers to defend them during their appeal process.
"You have a right to (court-appointed) counsel at your trial," said Stevenson, "but not for the subsequent appeals, which is what leads to people getting off death row. That's why organizations like mine are so overwhelmed with requests, and that's why I think many of us talk about the threat of executing the innocent as something quite serious. It's just inevitable that will happen.
"When you look at the number of cases 600 executions and about 87 releases that's an error rate of one out of eight just on the innocence question. And when you consider nearly half of the capital cases reviewed have been reversed by state or federal courtsŠI think no one who supports the death penalty can take great comfort in what the statistics have showed us."
Unlike many of his graduate school peers from Harvard, Stevenson earns little compensation for his long hours of work. From the Equal Justice Initiative he receives an annual salary of less than $30,000. A stipend from New York University Law School for teaching two classes in the spring semester even goes back into the initiative. The same is true for any award money Stevenson wins, including his most recent honor, the Gleitsman Foundation Citizen Activist Award, which provides $100,000 to people who make an impact in the United States working for "positive social change." His many awards and honors include the Thurgood Marshall Medal of Justice, the ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which came with a cash award of $230,000 that Stevenson donated to the Initiative's coffers.
"I don't think anyone who does the kind of work I do is motivated by money," said Stevenson. "I would much rather turn that (award) money into more effective services for the people we're working with than to put it in my bank account.... Ultimately, if I can create hope for someone in a community where hope is hard to find, increase an opportunity for justice, or save somebody from being wrongly executed, that's a reward unto itself.
"My greater challenge is going to sleep at night knowing there is still so much to do," he continued. "I am quite moved by the perspective of others who have struggled for a long time to make a difference, and I am energized to move on. We have seen meaningful differences for some of our efforts, but it is a daily struggle. Anytime you are constantly pushing a rock up a steep hill, there is tremendous difficulty. I'm quite satisfied that my efforts, at least most of the time, are well spent. Even if things don't end up the way you want them to, even trying to improve the quality of justice for people is enormously rewarding."
Mary Tamer is a freelance writer living in Boston, MA.