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The Death Row lawyer: 'If enough people say you should be executed, you start to believe it yourself'

The real-life work of US lawyer Bryan Stevenson hit the screens in Ireland this weekend with the film Just Mercy.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) with Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) in Just Mercy.
Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) with Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) in Just Mercy.

BRYAN STEVENSON GRADUATED from Harvard Law School in 1985. 

After getting his degree he decided to move down to Alabama and founded the Equal Justice Initiative.  He guaranteed to provide a legal defence for people on death row. 

Since then, he has helped to save over 100 men from the death penalty.

The story of one of Bryan’s first cases has now been turned into Just Mercy, a feature film with Michael B Jordan – of Creed fame – playing the lawyer and Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx portraying Walter McMillian.

McMillian had been convicted of the murder of a white teenager, 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, in June 1987. The jury in his trial recommended a life sentence. The judge ignored this, and sentenced McMillian to death. 

rev-1-JM-00079r_High_Res_JPEG Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) with Stevenson (Michael B Jordan)

Speaking to TheJournal.ie this week, Stevenson said that while he had an idea of what would be facing him when he started this work down in Alabama – were State-funded defences for death row prisoners had just been cut – he didn’t realise the extent to which law enforcement and local communities would react. 

“You’re never fully prepared,” he said. “I didn’t expect death threats or bomb threats. But I had lived in a segregated community [in Delaware]. And the generations before me. They had to suffer through lynchings. Through beatings. And they said ‘my head is bloody, but unbowed’… So I had to say the same.”

The film opens with the arrest of Foxx’s character and cuts to a young Stevenson meeting his first death row prisoner as an intern with a law firm. 

An initially nervous Stevenson spends three hours with this inmate and finds he’s not so different from himself.

“It was my first time on death row,” he told us. “It was someone just like me. And the guards treated him so badly.”

rev-1-JM-02237r_High_Res_JPEG

After the lawyer and the man sentenced to death bond unexpectedly, the film moves towards Stevenson’s interaction with McMillian.

At first, the man convicted of murder and sentenced to death is in no mood to engage with a lawyer promising they’ll do their best to save him.

It’s been a common experience for Stevenson over the years.

“There’s a lot of people for whom hope is difficult,” he said. “It’s easy for people to resign themselves. If enough people say you should be executed, you start to believe it yourself. You have to try and give people hope.”

Even a cursory look at the McMillian case raises serious doubts over his guilt – the key witness didn’t come forward until a year after the murder, is a convicted killer himself with a doubtful story and was moved from death row to a county jail after his confession to McMillian’s role.

Stevenson expected that the prosecutors will want to hear what he has to say. After all, it looked like they haven’t got the real murderer of Ronda Morrison. 

Not only is he not listened to, he’s actively dissuaded from continuing the case.

“We have a system where people don’t want to admit a mistake,” he said. “I expected they’d want to do the right thing.”

The film then follows Stevenson’s efforts to help other inmates on death row – including a Vietnam war veteran diagnosed with PTSD and another young man who claimed his public defence lawyer didn’t put up an adequate case. 

The film strives to make the point that the question should not be whether someone deserves to die for their crimes, but if society has a right to kill them.

a-celebration-for-just-mercy-with-a-conversation-with-the-cast-and-writer-bryan-stevenson Foxx, Stevenson and Jordan Source: Kristina Bumphrey

Stevenson disagrees that the United States of America creates an equitable system where such decisions could be made.

A phrase he has repeated again and again over the years is “we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent”. 

Although the majority of the film is set in the early 1990s, there are many things that remain the same in America today.

A client Stevenson had worked with for over 20 years on death row was only exonerated and released back in 2015. He continues to work with the same kinds of people in the same situations.

Has anything changed?

“We have seen some progress,” he said. “10 States have abolished the death penalty, and there’s far fewer executions now. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Jamie Foxx agrees. He said of the film: “There was a racial domino that was pushed a long time ago, and we’ve yet to put a stop to them falling.  So a movie like this is needed because, hopefully, people will come—Black, white, Asian, Latino, whoever—and leave the theatre with a different mindset and say, ‘No, we don’t want to see that happen anymore’.”

Brie Larson, who plays Stevenson’s colleague Eva Ansley, said: “Movies have a remarkable way of uniting us with people who are different from us.

So the idea that folks who maybe aren’t familiar with this issue, or who have a preconceived notion about the men and women on death row, could watch this film and have a new understanding of how our judicial system works, how it can fail us and how we can be of support is really important.

Released Stateside a few weeks ago, Stevenson said he’s already been inundated with people’s positive reaction to the film. He already feels it’s had a resonance with those who’ve watched it. “That’s the power of cinema,” he said.

I’m a product of the civil rights movement. The people who came before made it possible for me. They didn’t have to fight. Because they did I feel I have to. And I keep doing it to this very day.

Just Mercy is in cinemas nationwide now.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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