Walter McMillian had already been sitting on death row for more than a year when Bryan Stevenson walked into his life.
He’d landed there even before he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.
“Mr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but it’s important to me that you know that I’m innocent,” McMillian told Stevenson when they met in a prison visitor’s room.
“This lie they put on me is more than I can bear and if I don’t get help from someone who believes me . . . “ he said, choking back tears.
Stevenson was already feeling the weight of the countless death penalty cases he was juggling in his work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, but something about McMillian’s persistence rang true.
The young Harvard-educated attorney would soon learn that McMillian was a scapegoat – already despised by many in the community for having had an affair with a white woman and arrested to satiate local thirst for a resolution of the case.
No physical evidence placed McMillian at the scene of the murder, and as Stevenson would establish over the course of trials and appeals, the prosecution’s chief witnesses all lied under oath when pinning the murder on McMillian. Even worse, the prosecutors themselves withheld the testimony of other witnesses who placed McMillian at a church picnic on the day and time of the murder.
Six years later, McMillian walked out of the Holman Correctional Facility a free man.
He’s one of the lucky ones – wrongfully condemned but exonerated with the help of able and persistent counsel – and his story is just one of several heartbreakers told in Stevenson’s compelling memoir, Just Mercy.
Case by case, Stevenson exposes a world filled with broken people – both the condemned and their condemners – and highlights the randomness with which justice and punishment are meted out in this country.
That randomness has been on full display in recent weeks, as states like Alabama and Arkansas rushed to execute long-held death row inmates for no reason other than to use up lethal injection drugs before they expired at the end of April. In the courts, some inmates won stays of their executions; others did not.
But Stevenson also highlights the folks who’ve walked the dark walk with the condemned and consoled the wounded in courtrooms and jails, demonstrating that by getting close to the broken and acknowledging our mutual humanity, we can find redemption.
“We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and weak – not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken,” Stevenson writes.
“But each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Walter McMillian’s wrongful conviction saga is not an isolated one.
In North Carolina, for example, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown spent more than 30 years behind bars – some of those on death row – wrongfully convicted for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. DNA testing connected a cigarette butt found at the scene to another man already convicted for a similar rape and murder in the same town.
And Joseph Sledge spent more than 36 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, exonerated only after officials cleaning out an old evidence room found a glass slide containing hair samples that proved his innocence.
In fact, since 1973 more than 150 people have been released from death row based upon evidence of their innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Still though there are those among the wrongfully convicted who never get the help they need to clear their names
Ledell Lee, executed in Arkansas on April 20, may have been one such man.
Lee had been sitting on death row since 1995, condemned to die for the brutal murder of Debra Reese in a Little Rock, Arkansas suburb. He steadfastly maintained his innocence over the years as his case proceeded up and down the courts and asked for DNA testing, to no avail.
Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union who only recently took up his cause directed the courts to several problems with evidence and with the handling of his case -- his trial counsel had been frequently drunk while in court, the judge and prosecutor were having an affair – and pushed again for DNA testing.
But the supply of a lethal injection drug was running up against an expiration date and for state officials, getting a few executions in under the wire took priority over the rights of a condemned man. Lee’s requests for DNA testing that could exonerate him and a rehearing on other issues were denied at the state and ultimately U.S. Supreme Court levels, with newly-installed Justice Neil Gorsuch casting the deciding vote to execute Lee.
“While reasonable people can disagree on whether death is an appropriate form of punishment, no one should be executed when there is a possibility that person is innocent,” Nina Morrison, one of Mr. Lee’s lawyers, said in a statement after Lee’s execution.
Just the possibility of executing an innocent man was enough to convince I. Beverly Lake, Jr., a conservative former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, that the death penalty should be abolished. As a state legislator, judge and then supreme court justice, Lake had long been a staunch advocate of executions.
Last year, though, he wrote that he’d seen too much wrong with the criminal justice system and had come to the opinion that the death penalty was unconstitutional.
“My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes,” Lake said.
“There’s always a chance we might execute an innocent person,” he noted in an earlier interview.
The notion of casting stones – whether the biblical or glass house type – evokes thoughts of personal responsibility and self-awareness.
But catching stones already cast? For many of us that might just be a step too far.
In Stevenson’s world, it’s folks doing just that who set the possibility of redemption and mercy in motion.
There’s the guard who so callously treated a crippled and sick inmate, turned around after hearing that the inmate had lived through a life of foster care abuse. The guard, as we learn, had been an abused foster child himself.
There’s the gruff and righteous prison staff who, in the hours before an execution, are their most humane and empathetic selves.
“Everyone I saw at the prisons seemed surrounded by a cloud of regret and remorse,” Stevenson writes. “It seemed that everyone recognized that what was taking place was wrong.”
And then there’s an older black woman dressed in her “church meeting hat” who Stevenson sees repeatedly at a courthouse in New Orleans.
He assumed she was related to one of his clients but learned later that she had her own history in the same courtroom, having sat there sat years ago watching the trial of some boys who’d killed her grandson.
“None of it made any sense,” she told Stevenson. “Those boys were found guilty for killing my grandson, and the judge just sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse.”
That same day a stranger in the courtroom sat next to her quietly, leaning in and hugging her.
A year later, not knowing what else to do with her grief, she started coming down to the courthouse to do the same for others.
“When I first came, I’d look for people who had lost someone to murder or some violent crime,” she told Stevenson. “Then it got to the point where some of the ones grieving the most were the ones whose children or parents were on trial, so I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it.”
“All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence,” she added. “Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even humans, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain,” she told Stevenson.
“I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some the stones people cast at each other.”
Officials in Arkansas and Alabama, judges up and down the courts -- they all had chances these past few weeks to catch some stones.
Instead, they threw them away.