I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a 23-year-old student at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and worried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prison — and had certainly never been to death row.
Georgia’s death row is in a prison outside of Jackson, a remote town in a rural part of the state. I drove there by myself, heading south on I-75 from Atlanta, my heart pounding harder the closer I got. I didn’t really know anything about capital punishment and hadn’t even taken a class in criminal procedure yet. I didn’t have a basic grasp of the complex appeals process that shaped death penalty litigation, a process that would in time become as familiar to me as the back of my hand. When I signed up for this internship, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that I would actually be meeting condemned prisoners. To be honest, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a lawyer.
I studied philosophy in college and didn’t realize until my senior year that no one would pay me to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a “post-graduation plan” led me to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn’t require you to know anything. At Harvard, I could study law while pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, which appealed to me. I was uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, America’s history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another. It would have something to do with the things I’d already seen in life so far and wondered about, but I couldn’t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear.
Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry I’d made the wrong choice. Coming from a small college in Pennsylvania, I felt very fortunate to have been admitted, but by the end of my first year I’d grown disillusioned. At the time, Harvard Law School was a pretty intimidating place, especially for a 21-year-old. Many of the professors used the Socratic method — direct, repetitive and adversarial questioning — which had the incidental effect of humiliating unprepared students. The courses seemed esoteric and disconnected from the race and poverty issues that had motivated me to consider the law in the first place.
Many of the students already had advanced degrees or had worked as paralegals with prestigious law firms. I had none of those credentials. I felt vastly less experienced and worldly than my fellow students. When law firms showed up on campus and began interviewing students a month after classes started, my classmates put on expensive suits and signed up so that they could receive “fly-outs” to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Washington, D.C. It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparing ourselves to do. I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school.
I spent the summer after my first year in law school working with a juvenile justice project in Philadelphia and taking advanced calculus courses at night to prepare for my next year at the Kennedy School. After I started the public policy program in September, I still felt disconnected. The curriculum was extremely quantitative, focused on figuring out how to maximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefits achieved and the costs created. While intellectually stimulating, decision theory, econometrics and similar courses left me feeling adrift. But then, suddenly, everything came into focus.
I discovered that the law school offered an unusual one-month intensive course on race and poverty litigation taught by Betsy Bartholet, a law professor who had worked as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Unlike most courses, this one took students off campus, requiring them to spend the month with an organization doing social justice work. I eagerly signed up, and so in December 1983 I found myself on a plane to Atlanta, where I was scheduled to spend a few weeks working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC).
I hadn’t been able to afford a direct flight to Atlanta, so I had to change planes in Charlotte, N.C., and that’s where I met Steve Bright, the director of the SPDC, who was flying back to Atlanta after the holidays. Steve was in his mid-30s and had a passion and certainty that seemed the direct opposite of my ambivalence. He’d grown up on a farm in Kentucky and ended up in Washington, D.C., after finishing law school. He was a brilliant trial lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and had just been recruited to take over the SPDC, whose mission was to assist condemned people on death row in Georgia. He showed none of the disconnect between what he did and what he believed that I’d seen in so many of my law professors. When we met he warmly wrapped me in a full-body hug, and then we started talking. We didn’t stop till we’d reached Atlanta.
“Bryan,” he said at some point during our short flight, “capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’ We can’t help people on death row without help from people like you.”
I was taken aback by his immediate belief that I had something to offer. He broke down the issues with the death penalty simply but persuasively, and I hung on every word, completely engaged by his dedication and charisma.
“I just hope you’re not expecting anything too fancy while you’re here,” he said.
“Oh, no,” I assured him. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with you.”
“Well, ‘opportunity’ isn’t necessarily the first word people think of when they think about doing work with us. We live kind of simply, and the hours are pretty intense.”
“That’s no problem for me.”
“Well, actually, we might even be described as living less than simply. More like living poorly — maybe even barely living, struggling to hang on, surviving on the kindness of strangers, scraping by day by day, uncertain of the future.”
I let slip a concerned look, and he laughed. “I’m just kidding ... kind of.”
He moved on to other subjects, but it was clear that his heart and his mind were aligned with the plight of the condemned and those facing unjust treatment in jails and prisons. It was deeply affirming to meet someone whose work so powerfully animated his life.
There were just a few attorneys working at the SPDC when I arrived that winter. Most of them were former criminal defense lawyers from Washington who had come to Georgia in response to a growing crisis: Death row prisoners couldn’t get lawyers. In their 30s, men and women, black and white, these lawyers were comfortable with one another in a way that reflected a shared mission, shared hope, and shared stress about the challenges they faced.
After years of prohibition and delay, executions were again taking place in the Deep South, and most of the people crowded on death row had no lawyers and no right to counsel. There was a growing fear that people would soon be killed without ever having their cases reviewed by skilled counsel. We were getting frantic calls every day from people who had no legal assistance but whose dates of execution were on the calendar and approaching fast. I’d never heard voices so desperate.
When I started my internship, everyone was extremely kind to me, and I felt immediately at home. The SPDC was located in downtown Atlanta in the Healey Building, a 16-story Gothic revival structure built in the early 1900s that was in considerable decline and losing tenants. I worked in a cramped circle of desks with two lawyers and did clerical work, answering phones and researching legal questions for staff. I was just getting settled into my office routine when Steve asked me to go to death row to meet with a condemned man whom no one else had time to visit. He explained that the man had been on the row for over two years and that they didn’t yet have a lawyer to take his case; my job was to convey to this man one simple message: You will not be killed in the next year.
I grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula, in Delaware, where the racial history of this country casts a long shadow. The coastal communities that stretched from Virginia and eastern Maryland to lower Delaware were unapologetically Southern. Many people in the region insisted on a racialized hierarchy that required symbols, markers and constant reinforcement, in part because of the area’s proximity to the North. Confederate flags were proudly displayed throughout the region, boldly and defiantly marking the cultural, social and political landscape.
African-Americans lived in racially segregated ghettos isolated by railroad tracks within small towns or in “colored sections” in the country. I grew up in a country settlement where some people lived in tiny shacks; families without indoor plumbing had to use outhouses. We shared our outdoor play space with chickens and pigs.
The black people around me were strong and determined but marginalized and excluded. The poultry plant bus came each day to pick up adults and take them to the factory where they would daily pluck, hack and process thousands of chickens. My father left the area as a teenager because there was no local high school for black children. He returned with my mother and found work in a food factory; on weekends he did domestic work at beach cottages and rentals. My mother had a civilian job at an Air Force base. It seemed that we were all cloaked in an unwelcome garment of racial difference that constrained, confined and restricted us.
My relatives worked hard all the time but never seemed to prosper. My grandfather was murdered when I was a teenager, but it didn’t seem to matter much to the world outside our family.
My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved in Caroline County, Va. She was born in the 1880s, her parents in the 1840s. Her father talked to her all the time about growing up in slavery and how he learned to read and write but kept it a secret. He hid the things he knew — until Emancipation. The legacy of slavery very much shaped my grandmother and the way she raised her nine children. It influenced the way she talked to me, the Lway she constantly told me to “Keep close.”
When I visited her, she would hug me so tightly I could barely breathe. After a little while, she would ask me, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?” If I said yes, she’d let me be; if I said no, she would assault me again. I said no a lot because it made me happy to be wrapped in her formidable arms. She never tired of pulling me to her. “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,” she told me all the time.
The distance I experienced in my first year of law school made me feel lost. Proximity to the condemned, to people unfairly judged; that was what guided me back to something that felt like home.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Attorney Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has exonerated innocent prisoners on death row, overturned unfair sentences and aided children prosecuted as adults. His new book “Just Mercy” (Random House) chronicles his efforts to secure the freedom of Walter McMillian, who was falsely convicted of murder. The conviction was based on the testimony of a career criminal picked up for suspicion in another murder, despite six eyewitness alibis that placed McMillian at a family fish fry when the murder occurred. Although the jury recommended a life sentence, the judge condemned McMillian to death. He spent five years on death row before his release.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
Next week: After 17 years of oppression and desperation in West Africa, an immigrant finds abundance in Georgia and shares it with his homeland.