October 18, 2019

Bryan Stevenson

Civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson joins Firing Line to discuss race in America, the legacy of slavery, and his work defending death row prisoners. He also discusses creating The National Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the victims of lynching, and the upcoming Hollywood movie based on his memoir, Just Mercy.

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He’s dedicated his life to fighting for the condemned. This week on Firing Line. 

SOT STEVENSON: We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. 

His story could be straight out of Hollywood. As a boy Bryan Stevenson went to a segregated school in southern Delaware. At Harvard Law School he found his calling fighting for justice… 

SOT ANTHONY RAY HINTON: They had every intention of executing me for something I didn’t do.

…and helping Americans confront the most difficult parts of our history. His fight for mercy is so remarkable…

SOT JOHN LEGEND: Ladies and gentleman, Bryan Stevenson. [applause]

…Hollywood has taken notice. 


You the lawyer?
Yes ma’am.

Thank you for driving all the way out here.

What does Bryan Stevenson say now?


HOOVER: Welcome to Firing Line Bryan Stevenson.

STEVENSON: Thank you. 

HOOVER: You are the co-founder and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. And you have won relief from more than 130 death row inmates and hundreds of other accused, and have argued five cases in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Now, a Hollywood movie, a major motion picture, is coming out about your life based on the book you wrote, Just Mercy.

HOOVER: I’m going to show you a clip of the movie. Let’s take a look. 

MICHAEL B.JORDAN (STEVENSON): The first time I visited death row I wasn’t expecting to meet somebody the same age as me. Your life is still meaningful. And I’ll do everything possible to keep them from taking it. 

JAMIE FOXX (McMILLIAN): You don’t know what you into down here in Alabama. When you guilty from the moment you born. Guard! 

JORDAN: Mr. McMillian.

FOXX: We done here.

JORDAN: Mr. McMillian please. 

HOOVER: You saw Jamie Foxx there who plays Walter McMillIian… 


HOOVER: …an innocent man who was sentenced to death by a judge with a name none other than Robert E. Lee Key. 


HOOVER: What happened with that case?

STEVENSON: It’s a really fascinating case for a lot of reasons. First of all it takes place in Monroeville, Alabama, which is the community where Harper Lee grew up and wrote the beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird. And that community celebrates that story. They embrace that story. They romanticize that story. But when I got involved in Walter McMillian’s case — a black man wrongfully accused of killing a young white woman — it was almost as if they couldn’t make the connection. He was actually miles from the crime when the crime took place, surrounded by dozens of black people who could confirm his innocence. And he was largely prosecuted because he had had an affair with a young white woman which provoked people to see him as this dangerous person. He was convicted and sentenced to to life without parole by the jury and the judge overrode the jury’s verdict of life and imposed the death penalty. He spent the next six years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. I got involved and was really challenged by people who didn’t think I should represent someone like that. We got death threats. We got bomb threats. There were all kinds of efforts to undermine my my quest to kind of overturn his conviction. And the film gets into all of those details. But what was interesting to me about it is the way in which we can have this idea about who we are as a community, as a nation and not live out those ideas and values in real time when actual people’s lives are at risk. And that’s what happened to Walter McMillian.

HOOVER: The outcome of To Kill a Mockingbird is a very different outcome than what happened with Walter McMillian because of your legal work. And it seems to me that, that sort of bothers you. 

STEVENSON Well, I think I, you know, we have all of these awards that are named after Atticus Finch and we celebrate that story.

HOOVER: A lawyer like you, but who didn’t win an acquittal for his defendant. 

STEVENSON: I don’t want to be Atticus Finch. I don’t think it’s enough to just stand with someone who is innocent and then see them wrongly convicted and ultimately die from a lack of hope. I think we have to demand more we have to expect more than just showing up. And so, for me, I want people who have been wrongly convicted and condemned to win their freedom. I want our system to do better than what it has done for too long,

HOOVER: You began this work sitting across the table from a man who is roughly your age feeling utterly incapable of being able to muster what it was that he needed. But what he needed ended up not being your legal expertise. But, but what? 

STEVENSON: I think what many people who live in the margins of our society need, what many people who have been disfavored and excluded and condemned need is they need others to get close enough to recognize that they are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. To get close enough to understand the nature of the issues that have excluded, marginalized and disfavored them. And, yeah, I was a law student struggling at Harvard Law School. I’d never met a lawyer until I got to law school and I was really trying to find my path. And meeting condemned prisoners on Georgia’s death row who were literally dying for legal assistance, and seeing their humanity and seeing their need and their struggle for dignity really changed things for me in ways that I didn’t expect. And I became persuaded that it’s protecting the rights of the people who are most hated most despised most disfavored sometimes most rejected that is the ultimate test for our commitment to the rule of law. That’s where we can evaluate whether we’re truly prepared to be a just society and that encounter really shaped things for me and change things for me in ways that have continued to to this day. 

HOOVER: You are played by Michael B. Jordan. How does he do?

STEVENSON: He does great. I’m really flattered and honored. It’s kind of a thrill to have somebody as popular and, and as celebrated as Michael B. playing me. I told him when he took on the role he didn’t have to get rid of his Black Panther body when he played me and he seemed to honor that a bit. So it’s been really exciting to see the film come out and I’m excited for people to see it because I think it’s a way, again, of getting more people closer to this world that we have created in America that often treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.

HOOVER: Anthony Ray Hinton…


HOOVER: …is another man who you defended. He spent 30 years on death row // for a murder in which modern ballistic science ended up demonstrating that he was innocent. 

STEVENSON: That’s right. So he was also accused of two murders actually, and couldn’t get the expert help he needed when he was convicted and tried. And as a result of that he was found guilty and put on death row. We got involved in the case in 1999 and I found the best experts in the country to test this evidence. They quickly concluded that the gun didn’t match, the bullets didn’t match the gun that had been obtained from his home. And so they were very confident that he was innocent. We just couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to that. And I do think that’s one of the challenges with our death penalty today. We tolerate a lot of error. Mr. Hinton was 156th person exonerated, proved innocent after being sentenced to death. We’re now over 160 which means that  for every nine people we’ve executed in this country we’ve now identified one innocent person on death row. It’s a shocking rate of error. We wouldn’t tolerate that error in most other areas of our life. If somebody said for every nine apples in the store if you touch one it will kill you. No one would sell apples. We wouldn’t tolerate one out of nine planes crashing from the sky and everyone dying, and yet we tolerate it in the administration of the death penalty and that’s the challenge that I see us facing.

HOOVER: how has DNA and forensic technology changed the equation? 

STEVENSON: I think it’s had a huge impact. There’s no question that DNA in particular has helped us uncover wrongful convictions, but it’s a small subset of the large universe of wrongful convictions. DNA is typically most effective in cases where there’s been sexual assault or where there’s biological evidence that you can test. That’s a very small fraction of the kinds of cases that have sent many people to death row or people to prison for life with no chance of parole. We are making progress, but it won’t actually make a difference if we don’t create a different culture, if we don’t have a mindset that actually abhors wrongful conviction, that doesn’t insulate our prosecutors and our police when they make mistakes. We’ve got to create a whole new system of incentives in our criminal justice system

HOOVER: So one of the things I’ve heard you say is, we don’t deserve to kill. What do you mean? 

STEVENSON: Well I think the threshold question for the death penalty isn’t, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed. I think that’s the question a lot of people focus on. But* for me the question is do we deserve to kill. Do we have a system that is sufficiently reliable that we can entrust it with the ultimate power to take someone’s life? Do we have a system that’s free of bias against people of color? Do we have a system that’s nonpolitical? Do we have a system that is going to be fair even when there’s anger and frustration. 

Walter McMillian was largely convicted because people were frustrated and angry that the prosecutor and the police hadn’t solved that crime. And with that kind of pressure they did something that they shouldn’t have done. They coerced people to testify falsely against him which resulted in a wrongful conviction. And a system vulnerable to those kinds of pressures is one I don’t think deserves to kill.

HOOVER: Ground zero for the death penalty at the Supreme Court is McCleskey versus Kemp. The 1987 Supreme Court case and in a 5-4 decision the court affirmed the death penalty, that it was constitutional. And it was Justice Lewis Powell who said apparent disparities in sentencing are an inevitable part of our criminal justice system. When you hear that it is inevitable, how do you hear that?

STEVENSON: I’m I’m heartbroken by it. I think for the United States Supreme Court to concede to bias and the inevitability of racial discrimination is completely inconsistent with the court’s obligation to enforce the rule of law. As you mentioned Justice Powell wrote the majority opinion. And when he left the bench — when he retired — he was asked if there were any opinions he would like to do over if he had any regrets. And McCleskey was one of the two cases that he identified. 

HOOVER: Did he say why? 

STEVENSON: He said he recognized now that he wasn’t actually committing to the rule of law the way he should have. And he regretted that decision. But unfortunately it was too late and we still live under the cloud created by McCleskey. 

HOOVER: When you say that we don’t deserve to kill. Are there any circumstances — really severe circumstances — cases of mass murder where the perpetrator is, is clear. I’m thinking of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. 

STEVENSON: It’s to me it’s not about the offender and the violence. There are… People do horrific things and they have to be held accountable. I absolutely believe in accountability. I believe that we have an obligation to protect people from others who would try to harm us. We don’t have to execute anybody, though. We have the ability to confine and to imprison people without execution. For me the question is, is there a system so free of bias that doesn’t discriminate against the poor, that doesn’t allow politics to influence the way decision making happens. And I can’t see that system. I don’t see that system. 

HOOVER: you’ve been making that argument for many years now. You’ve even made it on Firing Line the past. A younger Bryan Stevenson in 1994 argued, participated in a debate on the merits of the death penalty and the demerits of the death penalty with William F. Buckley Jr. and I would like to show you your earlier self making just this argument. Let’s take a look

STEVENSON 1994: The state of Georgia… when a black defendant is sentenced to death and four of the 12 jurors who sentenced him say that the Ku Klux Klan do good things in that community. When that defense lawyer says that I believe my client is genetically predisposed to commit violent crimes and that’s why I’m comfortable with his death sentence. When the trial judge and the prosecutor refer to that black defendant as ‘colored boy’ throughout the trial, that’s racial bias. And that person is on death row today. And your office is prosecuting him trying to move towards execution. You shouldn’t stand up here and present like there’s no racial bias in Georgia. That’s the Georgia of 1994.

HOOVER: Do you think that since 1994 as a country we’ve come a little closer to understanding the argument you’ve been making all along, that there is racial discrimination that plays into sentencing.

STEVENSON: I do think there’s a growing recognition that the weight of our history is not something that we can continue to ignore. We’ve seen the Supreme Court — we’ve seen other institutions — responding to dramatic evidence of bias and discrimination. But for me that is a consequence of work that we’re just beginning. I think we’re just starting to actually create a consciousness about how we are going to deal with this long history of racial inequality. 

HOOVER: So this work is referred to as narrative work.


HOOVER: What is narrative work? I mean your work has shifted from being on the frontlines of legal defense to narrative work. 


HOOVER: Explain it to us. 

STEVENSON: It’s underneath the debates, underneath the topics that you hear people arguing about, there are narratives that actually shape the way we think.

HOOVER: Stories. 

STEVENSON: Stories… but ideas, values. So for example in the 1970s and 80s we declared a misguided war on drugs. We said that people who are drug addicted and drug dependent are criminals, and we need our criminal justice system to respond to that crisis. We could have said that people with addiction and dependency have a health problem, and we need our health care system to respond to that. The reason why we made the crime choice was because we were being governed by what I call the politics of fear and anger. It was a narrative that we had to be tough on crime, that people who don’t do exactly what we want them to do are criminals. And we use that narrative to justify these extreme punishments. And I think we have to change that narrative because I think fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression and injustice. If you go anywhere in the world where people are abused or oppressed, the oppressors will give you a narrative of fear and anger. That’s what was behind the genocide in Rwanda. That’s what was behind the Holocaust. That’s what’s behind all of the abuse we see today. So the narrative has to shift. And so what we’re trying to do is to change the narrative when it comes to our history of racial inequality. 

We’re a post genocide nation. What we did in native people when Europeans came to this continent was a genocide. We didn’t call it that because we said that native people were savages and we used this narrative of racial difference — those people are different — to justify that violence. And that narrative is what then got us comfortable with two and a half centuries of slavery. And I think the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude and forced labor. It was the narrative, the idea that black people aren’t as good as white people, they’re not fully human, they’re not evolved. That ideology of white supremacy that emerged from that narrative was the true evil. And that’s why I’ve argued that slavery doesn’t end in 1865. It just evolves. And that means we have work to do. 

HOOVER: So you’re one of the things you’re doing in order to help with that work is you’ve, you’ve built and founded the Legacy Museum in Alabama, and the Legacy Museum works on that.. it helps to tell the story from slavery to lynching to segregation to mass incarceration. And I think of those four components people are very familiar with three of them. But that lynching was such a such a critical part in between slavery and segregation — is very eye opening, 

STEVENSON: it’s part of our history that we’ve almost never talked about. I mean you go from the Civil War to the civil rights era as if nothing happened in between, when in fact it was a really dark period in American history where thousands of black people were pulled out of their homes and beaten and drowned and murdered and hanged. Millions of black people were terrorized. We had this mass migration where six million black people fled the American South to the north and west. And so for us, talking about what happens in America during that century is really critical to understanding where we are in America today. So we created a memorial that tells the story. 

STEVENSON: We have been trying to create a new iconography. We want to put up markers at every lynching site in America. We want to disrupt the silence. And so we actually send people, community members, to go to the sites. We ask them to dig soil at the lynching site and we put them in jars with the names of those lynching victims with the dates of those lynchings. And we have those jars on display in our museum. And it just becomes a tangible way to give honor and meaning to the lives of thousands of people who were victims of this terror and violence that really represents an abandonment of our commitment to the rule of law, and the demographic geography today is shaped by that era. Because we have millions of black people in Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland who didn’t go to those communities as immigrants. They went to those communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South. And we’re trying to recover that knowledge that understanding and we use things like the jars of soil and the monuments and our memorial and the stories of survivors to create a new relationship to this history. 

HOOVER: And a new relationship to the history that tells the history, so that we can understand the history, in order to really accept the history… 


HOOVER: …and then on some level, apologize for some part of it.

STEVENSON: Recover. Repair the damage. I really do believe that there’s something better waiting for us in this country. I think there’s something that feels more like freedom and equality than what we’ve experienced. But we can’t get there unless we’re willing to commit to a process of truth and repair. Truth and justice, truth and reconciliation. And for me those things are sequential. You’ve got to tell the truth before you get to reconciliation or repair or justice. And that’s what we’re trying to facilitate. 

And *sometimes people hear me talking about this history and they think I want to punish America for the system.  I have no interest in punishment. My interest is in liberation. You know I come from a faith tradition where redemption and restoration and repair comes after confession and repentance. And you can’t skip the confessing part just to get to the redemption part. And I just think collectively as a nation we need to be thinking about that. That’s what happened in South Africa after apartheid. That’s what happened in Rwanda. That’s what happened in Germany. But in this country we haven’t made that commitment and I think we still struggle as a result of that. 

HOOVER: One contribution to this narrative understanding of reconciliation I think was made by Michelle Obama in 2016 when she addressed the Democratic National Convention. I’d like to show you what she said and then reflect on that.

MICHELLE OBAMA 2016: I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. 

HOOVER: And yet not all reactions to that were the same. 

STEVENSON: Yeah there weren’t…

HOOVER: There was commentary from conservative quarters from different parts of the country that frankly tried to justify that the White House had been built by slaves. It was written about in the press. One commentator even said well the slaves were well-fed and put in safe and sturdy lodging. 

STEVENSON: Yeah. You know for me that was such a powerful moment in American history to see an African-American woman giving voice to this reality. But we are so unpracticed in talking truthfully about our history. It’s not a surprise that it was met with derision and criticism. We have been practicing silence for a really long time. And when you disrupt silence people get nervous. They get anxious. But it is exactly how we recover. It is exactly how we make progress. Some people feel like we don’t have the capacity to talk honestly about what happened to Native people and to talk honestly about slavery and lynching and segregation. I actually think those people underestimate the power of this country to survive. The power of the people in this country to overcome. And I just think we are doubting what it really means to be a great nation when we continue to allow ourselves to avoid these hard conversations that need to be had. 

HOOVER: You say the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s justice.

STEVENSON: I am persuaded that sometimes we talk too much about money in America. I really do believe that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. I believe the opposite of poverty is justice. We have generational poverty in the African-American community. My dad was a smart person. He was hardworking. He was really really dedicated to the things he did. He couldn’t go to high school because of unjust racial bias and therefore didn’t have the opportunities that I’ve had. If we had done justice we could have actually created opportunities for him. So we didn’t have to grow up poor. That’s what I mean, is that when we challenge the unjust structures and systems, when we don’t allow people to reach their full potential because we create barriers and boundaries that are shaped by unjust practices, we give rise to the kind of poverty that we see. 

HOOVER: The U.S. prison population rose 700 percent…


HOOVER: …between 1972 and 2009. It is down now 7 percent since 2009. And President Trump just last year signed the First Step Act, // INSERT PICKUP:  which shortens prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. //  Many say who are in favor of it — and against it — that at least it was a first step.

STEVENSON: Listen I think we’re all grateful that we’ve made some small step, but it’s really important to recognize what that law is and what it’s not. First of all, the First Step Act only applies to people in federal prisons. Only 10 percent of the people in America’s jails and prisons are in federal custody. So this applies to a very small percentage of that 10 percent. Look I supported it. I think it’s a good thing. But we are deluding ourselves if we think that this is some huge step forward with regard to mass incarceration, because it just doesn’t deal with the heart of the problem. And the heart of the problem is that we have too many people in jails and prisons who are not a threat to public safety. You know we’re 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned. We have a lot of work to do. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of people we could release tomorrow, and the crime rate would not go up. But we won’t because there’s still too many people who want to be tough on crime, who are kind of wedded to that narrative of fear and anger.

HOOVER: It seems to me some of the greatest partners and the reforms that you’re talking about have been, sort of surprisingly, in the red states in the south…

STEVENSON: Well that’s right. 

HOOVER: …from Kentucky to Mississippi to Louisiana. 

STEVENSON: Absolutely. Well I mean you know if you have an ideology that abhors big government then you absolutely ought to be appalled by mass incarceration. It is the largest segment of state government spending increasingly, because we’ve invested so many billions into this industry, and it is an industry. We’ve got private players now that are benefiting by having these high levels of incarceration and that’s a real threat. 

HOOVER: You recently wrote in The New York Times, “We are at one of those critical moments in American history when we will either double down on romanticizing our past or accept that there’s something better waiting for us.” How are we more free after we’ve reconciled with our past? What does that look like?

STEVENSON: Well I, you know I just think we can we can truly embrace what’s best… and there was a time where the best baseball players couldn’t play baseball the best basketball players couldn’t play basketball. Our sports were a sham. They didn’t actually reflect what human beings can do when they actually commit themselves to process. But when we broke down those barriers we began to see what a truly integrated sports world couldn’t create. And what we’ve seen is magical. It’s spectacular. And I think the same opportunities and the same kind of spectacle of greatness awaits us. But we’ve got to break down all the barriers, And those barriers still exist in business, they exist in economics, they exist in education, they exist in too many areas of our life. And the great thing that we can become is waiting for us when we actually commit to eliminating those barriers. The same is true for gender. How long did we not allow our most gifted and talented journalists and filmmakers and storytellers and politicians have the platforms that they deserve. Because we didn’t think that women should be in those spaces When those barriers have come down — and we still have more to take down — we begin to understand what all of our committed talent and collective power can lead us to achieve. But as long as we put restraint based on color or gender or bias shaped by something else we’ll never be the great society that we’re meant to be. 

HOOVER: Bryan Stevenson, for the work you do thank you very much for being a leading light of this generation and returning to Firing Line.

STEVENSON Thank you very much. Great to be back.