Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights attorney widely acclaimed for his work representing prisoners on death row. He founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Ala., that provides legal representation to prisoners and defendants in need. In 2012, he successfully argued a Supreme Court case to strike down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Stevenson spoke to a full house in Rosse Hall Tuesday evening, after which he signed copies of his best-selling 2014 memoir Just Mercy.
What is your elevator pitch for individuals who aren’t convinced race plays a role in the adjudication of capital crimes?
I don’t think there can really be any doubt about the role it plays. Race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in this country. I think that our history of racial inequality makes it just improbable to imagine the system’s not going to be compromised by that. I think in a lot of ways it’s not a question about the role it plays but about our tolerance of any factor that is arbitrary and unfair. That’s why I think the death penalty isn’t a question about who deserves to die. I think the threshold question is, do we deserve to kill? I think a system that is compromised by racial bias, that’s not very reliable in certain – circumstances, has this history behind it, does it really deserve to be trying to impose a perfect punishment? Because we’re an imperfect system, and imperfect people can’t execute punishments for which there can be no mistakes.
In Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of you in The New Yorker, you say you became a lawyer because the courts seemed more effective at affecting change than politics. Do you still believe this is the case, and why?
I do. I think that because we are a country that is committed to the rule of law that means we have to recognize rights, even when the rights we recognize are on behalf of people who are disfavored. I look at marriage equality as the perfect example of that. You could not achieve marriage equality in states like where I live in Alabama. You couldn’t even achieve it in California. It was a right that had to be enforced by the court. In the 1960s, the court struck down bans on interracial marriage. It would not have happened through the political process, but it did happen through the legal process, and I think that’s why I believe there is utility in lawyers and law practice, because we can protect the rights of disfavored people who will always be political minorities, who will never have the ability to get the majority to necessarily see their humanity. And they need to.
What do you think makes a successful lawyer, particularly in death row cases?
I think you have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to spend time with the people you’re representing and learning their life. You’ve got to be interested in understanding and mastering the procedural complexities that shape death penalty litigation. But, ultimately, you have to be prepared to be overwhelmed. If you’re willing and prepared to be overwhelmed, I think you can endure the challenges and stand with people who need someone to stand with them.
The Equal Justice Initiative warehouse is located in an area of Alabama where slave trade was once conducted. What emotions does that bring about for you and other workers at EJI?
I hope it causes us to be conscious of the legacy that we are trying to address. I don’t think that slavery is something that happened a long time ago that has no impact on what we talk about today. I actually think it cast a shadow, and we are still living and working in that shadow. When you’re reminded of that legacy, you’re reminded of the need to confront and combat racial bias and discrimination and all of the sentiments that go into that. I’m the great-grandson of enslaved people, and when I was in law school I didn’t tell people that I started my education in a colored school. I didn’t tell them about my grandmother and how she’d be in my ear all the time about slavery. And now I feel a need to tell everybody that, because it’s in recognizing that history and that struggle that we become mindful of our capacity to survive [and] overcome.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
A lot of people don’t know how important music is to me. I grew up in a very musical family. I started playing piano when I was really young, and I don’t think I could do a lot of the things I do if there wasn’t a soundtrack, if there wasn’t a space to occupy when you really are feeling quite challenged.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.