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Just Mercy

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.


The Bottom Line

The American criminal justice system disproportionately punishes the poor, people with mental illness and people of color. It focuses far more on punishment than rehabilitation, devastates communities and leaves little room for equal justice — or mercy.

I. Introduction

In 1983 Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard Law School student, was interning with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta. One day, he was tasked with visiting a man on death row to inform him that his case had not yet been assigned to an attorney but that he was not at risk of being executed within the next year.

Stevenson was struck by the man’s gratitude for delivering the news and by his humanity. The two men then began to talk — and their visit lasted three hours, during which they discovered commonalities in their lives.

After graduating, the young lawyer founded the Equal Justice Initiative to provide free legal counsel to those most in need: the wrongfully convicted, prisoners on death row, the poor and mentally challenged. One of his first clients is a Black man sentenced to die for the murder of a white woman he insisted he did not commit — a case that lays bare how race and prejudice have denied many in our society from being seen as equal in the eyes of the law.

II. Targeted by Law Enforcement

III. Meeting Walter McMillian

IV. The Prosecution’s Case

V. Justice Denied

VI. The Long Arc of Racial Injustice

VII. The Age of Mass Incarceration

The Takeaway


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Also in the 'Race In America' Collection