Last month, I watched Just Mercy, the film adaptation of Bryan Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Before watching it, I checked out his Ted Talk on the racist corruption in the criminal justice system. Stevenson, as I learned, is a remarkable man who has legally represented and freed over a hundred prisoners wrongly put on death row. In 1989, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based non-profit organization with the mission to “[provide] legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.”
[bf_image id="q618za-a1wc28-4ulqus"] Both the book and film follow Stevenson’s first and most popular case in which he defends Walter McMillan, a man sentenced to death row in 1987 for the murder of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison. Here’s where the corruption lies: McMillan was held on death row before his trial even began, and despite several witnesses testifying his alibi, they were ignored simply because they were all his black neighbors. So, how did the court declare his conviction?
*Spoilers may begin here, but I still highly recommend you read the book and/or see the movie!*
[bf_image id="q618wb-ck7as8-99bqz4"] There was only one alleged “witness” to McMillan’s crime who testified against him, and that was Ralph Myers. Not only was Myers a white man, which is why his testimony was acknowledged and valued over those of McMillan’s black neighbors, but at the time of his accusation, he was awaiting trial and facing the death sentence for murder. The reason McMillan, who had no idea who Ronda Morrison was and had a perfectly solid alibi, was the “pick” for Ronda’s murderer had to do with the case itself; Ronda’s murder case was a dead-end for investigators, who found no evidence leading to her killer, but there was much pressure to convict and punish someone. So, to tie some tedious loose ends, an agent of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation coerced Myers to testify against a black man (McMillan) in exchange for a reduction in his prison sentence. Pretty corrupt, right?
Unfortunately, McMillan’s case unfolded as unjustly as the system could manage, and over six months after Ronda’s murder, he was “finally” arrested and taken to prison. McMillan was held on death row for years until Stevenson took on his case. From that point onward, Stevenson faced death threats, racial discrimination, and a long battle with the court to prove McMillan’s innocence–or rather, since there was so little evidence to prove him guilty in the first place, bring awareness to the issue of racial discrimination in the justice system.
In 1992, McMillan’s case was featured on “60’s Minutes,” which gained national attention and led to his final hearing by Alabama's Court of Criminal Appeals the following year. After the failure of four previous appeals, the court ruled McMillan as innocent, and he was freed after (wrongfully) spending six years on death row. This was one of many successes to come for Stevenson, and the two remained close until McMillan’s death back in 2013.
[bf_image id="q58sl3-3ecg6o-7rn9s"] Judging by the movie/book alone, Stevenson is quite the hero, especially one to recognize during Black History month; despite the odds, he has never strayed from his morals and passion for justice. He has carried out this work ever since he took on McMillan’s case, but imagine everyone wrongly placed in prison without their own Stevenson to fight for their freedom?
Stevenson presents a shocking fact: “For every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated.” Clearly, the fight for justice isn’t over; if anything, it’s just getting started. Michael B. Jordan himself claims, “They say slavery ended...but it’s just evolved.” We need more people like Stevenson in America to not only fight for those who are innocent and wrongly placed in prison, but combat racism and prejudice as a whole in our criminal justice system. It is thanks to Bryan Stevenson that we have a precedent set and a role model to follow in our path to liberty and justice for all.