I recently watched the documentary “True Justice” which tells the story of Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who started the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. Not unlike his book “Just Mercy,” it was a difficult watch and took me five days to complete the 1:40 minute documentary.
The film tells Bryan’s life journey and gives you a look into the humanity and strength of this man. Bryan doesn’t say it, but I believe it must be a very lonely journey that comes with great sacrifice. Bryan says the capacity to remain hopeful in the face of such irrational resistance is challenging.
He was born in Georgetown, Del., one of three children. Bryan has never married and has no children. His brother named one of his sons after him. Bryan is an accomplished pianist and says music is his therapy. It takes him out of his head and is a real comfort to manage the challenges.
In the documentary, Bryan tells the story of when he was a boy and his mother took him and his sister on a church excursion. They were so excited because the hotel they stayed at had a pool. He remembered running and jumping in the pool that was full of other kids playing. All of a sudden, parents began pulling their children out of the pool. Confused, Bryan asked one of the parents, was there a problem. This white man looked at him and said you’re the problem, nigger. Bryan remembers his mother sending them back in that pool telling him and his sister, not to let anyone run them out of that pool.
Bryan founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989. Alabama does not have a public defender system and has the highest death sentencing rate per capita in the country. Since 1983, 156 people on death row have been exonerated. Bryan believes we can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect lynching from the legacy of slavery.
After the abandonment of Reconstruction, white people started criminalizing things Black people did. These were things that would never be criminalized for people of other ethnicity. After dark, six Black men could be arrested just for congregating together. It was a crime for a Black person to look for a job unless he had a letter of reference from his ex-slave master; without a letter, he faced arrest.
During the Civil Rights Movement, protesters were criminalized. Dr. King was convicted of committing a crime for organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Every time Black people have a moment of progress, there is a reaction against that progress, and the reaction is to criminalize, reshape and redefine what just happened. Black people were arrested and convicted for fabricated crimes. It was a new form of enslavement and the word “slave” was replaced with the word “criminal.”
The documentary introduced us to three men Bryan had represented on death row. Jimmy Lee Dill was an intellectually challenged Black man on death row in Alabama. EJI got the case 30-days before the execution. Bryan argued all the way up to the Alabama Supreme Court, challenging the execution of a disabled person. At each level of appeal, he was told his challenge was too late, someone should have made that challenge sooner. The state of Alabama executed Jimmy Lee Dill.
Walter McMillan spent six years on death row for a crime he did not commit before Bryan took his case in 1988. In 1993, the Alabama Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision, but only after refusing four other appeals by Bryan. He was able to prove the police chief had coerced a witness to commit perjury by falsely identifying Walter in a capital murder crime. The trauma took its toil on Walter, and he developed dementia and died in 2013.
Anthony Ray Hinton shares his own story in the documentary. He remembers being outside cutting grass when he was arrested by two police detectives. When he told them he did not commit the robbery, during which someone had been killed, one of the detectives told him it didn’t matter. The detective told Hinton five things would convict him: he was Black, a white man was going to testify he committed the crime, the prosecutor was white, the judge was white and he would have an all-white jury. Hinton spent 30 years in prison on death row. He was 29 years old when he went to prison
Ballistic tests proved the gun police took from Hinton’s mother’s house did not match the crime. Despite that, the evidence was not disputed. Alabama’s Attorney General Bill Pryor refused to view the evidence. Pryor was later appointed to a life-time judgeship by George W. Bush. It took EJI 15 years to exonerate Anthony Ray Hinton. EJI took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled, for the first time, the state of Alabama must give Hinton a new trial. In the documentary, Hinton said the one thing he is most bothered by is that no one from the state of Alabama every told him they were sorry.
There are 13 states that do not have a minimum age for trying a child as an adult. In 2005, EJI challenged the U.S. Supreme Court on sentencing children to the death penalty and won. In 2010, EJI also won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against life sentences without chance of parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases.
Bryan’s 86-year old grandfather was stabbed to death for refusing to give his TV to a young boy who broke into his apartment in the South Philadelphia Projects. Bryan was 16 when his grandfather was murdered, and he remember the pain it brought to his family.
Six million Black people fled the south from terror and violence during the ’50s and ’60s. However, they moved to cities in the north in violent neighborhood and attended violent schools, still living in terror. By the age of 5, many children suffered from trauma disorder. They were never given the opportunity to recover, which contributes to conditions today in many inner-city neighborhoods.
In the ’70s, everyone began talking about criminal justice and mass incarceration. The prison population went from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today. The incarceration of women has gone up 646 percent in the last 25 years. Bryan stresses there is a huge difference between law and justice. It is forecast that 1-out- of-3 Black boys will go to jail or prison. In 1980, $6 billion was spent for incarcerating people; in 2018 that cost was $80 billion.
Bryan states that it is an indictment against this country not to recognize the historical legacy of the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black people. He believes this country has to commit to fairness, it has to be committed to reliability, and it has to be committed to punishment that’s humane.
There is a history of untold cruelty that hides in silence in this country. The documentary goes on to state, even though the Civil Rights Movement won the legal battle, the narrative was won by those resistant to change. Slavery is still memorialized in the statues and other symbols throughout this country.
EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum were created intentionally for us as a country to face and acknowledge America’s history. Bryan says it like this, “We must have a culture movement to make us remember more. Not just for remembrance sake, but as recognition that there is no recovery without truth and reconciliation.”