This is one of those books that I want to put into everyone’s hands and one that I’m planning to own (because I read a library copy.) Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and one of the many interesting talking heads in Ava DuVenay’s documentary, 13th, has crafted a book that is part memoir, part investigative journalism, and all heart—angry, tearful, heart. It tackles the mess that is our criminal justice system by focusing specifically on Stevenson’s work with prisoners on death row and with minors who were have been tried as adults and given lengthy prison sentences.
Stevenson weaves two stories together, his own and that of Walter McMillan, one of his clients, to form the backbone of this book. As a young law student at Harvard in the early 80’s, Stevenson feels distanced from his courses and his classmates until he takes advantage of an intensive class on race and poverty litigation that sends him down to Atlanta for a month to work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). This internship experience gives Stevenson a cause and a focus for the rest of his education or as he says, “Developing the skills to quantify and deconstruct the discrimination and inequality I saw became urgent and meaningful” (13). In a way, Stevenson’s academic and professional journey brings him full circle back to the issues he experienced growing up poor and black in Delaware—including “the question of how and why people are judged unfairly” (13).
After graduating from law school, Stevenson returns to the SPDC to work full-time and that’s where he first crosses paths with Walter McMillan, a middle-aged African-American man from Monroe County, Alabama, who has been convicted of murder but insists that he is innocent. Though Stevenson is used to hearing protestations of innocence, when he actually begins to look at the facts of the case, he is appalled (and you will be too) at how a man whose only lapse in judgement was to have an extramarital affair with a white woman has been railroaded through the system straight to death row.
Stevenson uses the story of how he got involved with McMillan’s case and the eventual result as a springboard for larger discussions about how the criminal justice system works (or actually fails to work) for those who are poor, especially poor people of color. The specific cases he uses to make his case for the problems in our system are like sucker punches to the gut and as the daughter of a criminal defense attorney they made me furious. My dad died in 1993 but reading this book made me think a lot about him and the stories he told about his clients and the system. As somebody who often functioned like a public defender (there were many clients he never charged), my dad was appalled at how the bill of rights seemed to be thrown out the window as the crack epidemic hit our former steel town in the early 80’s. All this is to say is that I think my dad and Bryan Stevenson would really have liked each other and my dad would have loved this book. That’s as good a recommendation as any.
Oh yeah and here’s one quote out of the many I wrote down while reading this book:
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness and equality cannot be measured 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 (17-18).