Reflecting on Bryan Stevenson: How a Criminal Lawyer Became the Leading Civil Rights Voice of Our Time

by Lisa Kerr

The field of criminal justice is often in need of moral leadership. While Bryan Stevenson is focused on the U.S. system, his message about the need for greater fairness and mercy is relevant to the administration of criminal law everywhere.

A law professor, lawyer and public speaker, Stevenson is the protégé of great death penalty lawyers Stephen Bright and Anthony Amsterdam, and he is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners. The focus of EJI’s work is capital punishment, wrongful conviction, and juvenile imprisonment. Stevenson also teaches law at New York University, and he gave the most-watched TED Talk by a lawyer (viewed millions of times). In a 2016 New Yorker article, Stevenson is described as follows: “he is a modest, straightforward, ordinary person, and yet he is magical. He is a gift to this country and to a cause that would not be the same without him.”

Whether in the classroom or on national stages – or in public conversations with figures like John Legend, Oprah Winfrey, and Paul Holdengraber – Stevenson is relentlessly focused on raising public consciousness about the extreme realities of American punishment. He repeats his mantra at every chance: that the United States has a criminal justice system that “treats you better if you are rich and guilty, than if you are poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.” When a conversation strays from that core vision, Stevenson steers it warmly but swiftly back. And he is not afraid to make his points repeatedly.

Just Mercy

Stevenson’s recently published memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is so powerful and timely that it has been selected by dozens of American colleges and universities as required common reading for the incoming class. Just Mercy describes Stevenson’s experiences working with defendants facing the most extreme penal sanctions in a highly punitive country.,

The central narrative in Just Mercy is the story of an innocent black man, Walter McMillian, in Monroeville, Alabama, convicted of the 1986 murder of a white woman.. As Stevenson emphasizes, Monroeville prides itself as the birthplace of Harper Lee, and yet the late twentieth-century McMillian prosecution is strikingly reminiscent of the false accusations and racism at the heart of the town’s cherished To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The investigation, trial, and appeals in McMillian’s case are each marked by stunning racial bias within the legal system. Stevenson has more success than Atticus Finch: McMillian was exonerated in 1993 when Stevenson’s team showed that the flimsy evidence used to convict McMillian at trial was largely coerced and fabricated by breathtakingly incompetent and corrupt police and prosecutors.

While mainstream attention to the criminal justice system tends to thrive on stories of wrongful conviction – which may partly explain the central place of this particular story in the narrative of Just Mercy – Stevenson is also intensely engaged in high-level strategic litigation designed to narrow or prohibit extreme punishments for those who are guilty of serious crimes. In my University of Toronto Law Journal review essay, I try to foreground and illuminate that legal-doctrinal story, so that we can read Just Mercy with a fuller appreciation of Stevenson’s work as a litigator.

‘Getting Close’

Those who work to improve the Canadian criminal justice system will be inspired to learn of Stevenson’s extraordinary life and his core beliefs. Stevenson often says that you have to work hard to “get close” to suffering – that you have to “get adjacent” to it. In the United States today, this means “getting adjacent” to extreme sanctions like the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles, most often imposed on individuals whose life stories could just as easily elicit sympathy as revenge. For those willing to “get close” to suffering in Canada, we encounter a system that imprisons Indigenous and Black people at a disproportionate rate. We face the ongoing reliance on prisoner isolation as an everyday management tool. We face unacceptable levels of mental illness, particularly among incarcerated women. Only if you “get close” can you see the need for change and begin to press for it. As Stevenson counsels, we must seek reforms in ways that embrace everyone, including all those who have been misled and misdirected by our histories of racial inequality.

When Stevenson is asked to explain what motivates his work and the difficult, often ascetic life conditions that he has endured in order to do it, he commonly replies that he does it partly because he is “broken.” It’s an intriguing thing for such a brilliant and accomplished person to say. In a chapter called ‘Broken,’ Stevenson writes in Just Mercy that he is simply acknowledging the position we all find ourselves in: “We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.” When we recognize our own “brokenness”, Stevenson says, we recognize the need “to stand up, to recover, to redeem ourselves, and to redeem others.”

Dr. Lisa Kerr is Assistant Professor at Queen’s University where she teaches courses on criminal law, sentencing and prison law. Professor Kerr was previously staff lawyer at Prisoners’ Legal Services in British Columbia. She completed her doctorate at New York University as a Trudeau Scholar. She has worked for many years on public interest litigation with Pivot Legal Society and the BC Civil Liberties Association.  She is on Twitter @coleenlisa.