December 11, 2014
Title: My Reflections after Reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy
I received my copy of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption on Oct. 23rd. I was actually scheduled to moderate a panel sponsored by a human and civil rights organization about race and the criminal justice system that very evening. I took Bryan Stevenson’s book with me to share with the panelists and the audience. I read a passage from his book. I didn’t begin reading his book right away, but when I started on it, I had to put it aside several times, it is a very emotional read in general, but it was particularly emotional for me as I thought about Rodney with each page read. I also thought about the many, many years I’ve contacted Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative to take on Rodney’s case. While I understand he and his organization’s focus was primarily of death penalty cases and juveniles sentenced to life and to death (these stories will haunt you), I did not fully and truly understand until reading his book.
Bryan Stevenson has taken on the cases of those that society would deem to be very unfit to be treated with justice and mercy. He has done this while also, especially during the early years of establishing the Equal Justice Initiative, undergoing death threats, threats to bomb his office over the Walter McMillian case (innocent, sentenced to death row) and without much financial and institutional support (fortunately, he stuck with moving the EJI forward and has made it a viable organization, and let us hope that the threats have subsided over the years). Bryan Stevenson doesn’t only try to provide relief for those incarcerated, but he understands the need to “fix” this criminal justice system by focusing on poverty, racial disparities, and how our past legacies have shaped it. There have been people (attorneys, investigators) who we have had disappointing interactions with regarding Rodney’s case and I’ve been somewhat critical of those folks, but I am so glad that I never criticized Bryan Stevenson. John Grisham, in his message on the front cover of Just Mercy writes: “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such as difference in the American South… Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope.” I thought I knew and understood this through my nearly two decades of following him and the EJI, but after reading his book, I truly know and understand this-(this being his work, not ascribing it to an entity, though). Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable individual. I encourage you to read his book and to support his organization and many like it. I yearn for the day when an organization such as the Equal Justice Initiative and/or an Innocence Project is housed in Mobile, Alabama.
We will continue this struggle to exonerate Rodney K. Stanberry. I wish Bryan Stevenson had written this book 17 years ago when I first became an advocate for Rodney’s case. One of the things that one has to come to understand when being an advocate for the wrongfully convicted is that district attorneys, judges, and the judicial system as a whole do not respond to moral suasion. It is not a matter of whether one was wrongfully convicted, innocent and incarcerated, so one has to use the tools that they have to force the matter. Attorney Bryan Stevenson did just that. And while there were some heartbreaking cases that he could not win (ie motions denied by judges), his use of his legal background to come face to face with judges and prosecutors (and even law enforcement) saved many people, and restored hope to many families. However one feels about the death penalty and people on death row, there has to be some recognition of the humanity in everyone, as Stevenson writes:
“ I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations- over the things they’d done or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you are not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” P 290, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson.
Just Mercy also provides additional insight into the rush to incarcerate for life people as young as 13, putting them in an adult prison, where they are certain to suffer from abuse. One case of a young man named Charlie (see Chapter 6 of Just Mercy entitled “Surely Doomed”) suffered horrible abuse in an adult jail before he even had a chance to go to trial. As horrific some in the public may think some kids are, do we want this sort of abuse to be part of the arrest and/or sentence? Again, Bryan Stevenson’s book is very well written and he puts a very real face to some of the people we in society would like to ignore. I have to admit that I am not always sympathetic to the idea of abolishing the death penalty, even though I don’t like the idea of the state being involved in executing people and even though I know the racial disparities that exist in who gets the death penalty. For example, the most reliable predictor of who is sentenced to death is based on the race of the victim. According to a United States General Accounting study, as reported by Amnesty International, an individual is several more times likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim is white- http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts/death-penalty-and-race. This is inherently wrong and unfair and sends a message that not all lives matter. I mean there are issues that I have with the death penalty, including not being in support of the state putting people to death, but I don’t write blogs or talk about it because I do understand that there are some cases out there that are atrocious, but, again, do we want the state to be involved in executing people. Also, we know that there are people, such as Walter McMillan, who plays a central role in Stevenson’s book, who are innocent and on death row. We can’t be comfortable as a nation executing innocent people, or even the possibility of executing innocent people.
I have been a strong advocate of providing relief for non-violence drug offenders and, obviously, those who are wrongfully convicted, such as my cousin, Rodney K. Stanberry. But reading Stevenson’s book also resulted in my doing some soul searching as I am not completely where he is. But soul searching is good. When I first heard about Rodney’s case and that the jury convicted him, my thought was that if the jury convicted him, then he must be guilty. It did not take me long at all to see how easy it is for a jury to convict an innocent man and now, 17 years after reading the transcripts regarding Rodney’s case, I am more aware than I ever thought I would be about how the jury can convict innocent people and the conduct engaged in by prosecutors to mislead the jury (ie suppressing evidence, including a confession, in Rodney’s case, withholding exculpatory evidence, and so on). I’ve spent 17 years of my life advocating for Rodney’s freedom, something that I would not have done if I hung on to the comfortable notion that if the jury convicts, then a person must be guilty; or if I had hung on to the comfortable notion that prosecutors would not pursue an innocent person. Stevenson, after dealing with a particularly heart wrenching case for him, talked about being broken, about realizing that he is working in a very imperfect system.
While a significant amount of my life has been devoted to Rodney’s case, which is far from the hundreds of that Stevenson had and has an up close and personal view of, I, too, have felt broken. I’ve described it as having a never ending heartbreak because the system has broken our hearts one time too many. I was actually asked before Rodney’s third and final parole hearing last year how I would feel if he were not granted in parole. As much as Rodney and I still believed in the system, how would I feel? I wrote this blog in response to the question. Rodney was denied parole on August 28th, 2013, and he is about to go through another Christmas/holiday season, including a new year innocent and incarcerated. His scheduled release date is March 2017. It does not get easier, and it is so easy to give up given that the system is stacked against an inmate once convicted, but as Bryan Stevenson said, we must not allow that feeling of brokenness to define us. We are more than that. We are persistent, we are hopeful, and though justice has been very much delayed, we believe in it. So, I, like Stevenson, am not just broken. And this is what pushes us to continue to push for exoneration. One of the inmates that Stevenson successfully granted release for has been in prison for nearly 50 years- in Angola (Louisiana) once known as one of the toughest prison’s in the US, sentenced as a young man for a non-capital case. His mother was 100 years old when Stevenson was able to finally get the individual freed. His mother lived to see her son a free man. Rodney’s mother died on September 8, 2012, he was not able to have a reunion with his mother as a free man. He wasn’t even able to attend her funeral. His mother was and is his heart. His father is 80. We have to push on for exoneration. We hope that Rodney will be able to spend quality time with his father as a free man. Rodney’s father, family, friends, and so on know that he is innocent; it is the state that has to acknowledge it for the sake of true justice. While Rodney will likely serve out his sentence before that happens, even if we can’t get his case back into the court system today, we cannot end this battle until Rodney is exonerated. He was wrongfully accused in 1992, convicted in 1995, and began his prison sentence in 1997. It is 2014. Justice is never served when the wrong person is convicted and justice delayed, is truly justice denied.
For additional information about Rodney’s case, please read http://www.bostonreview.net/us/who-shot-valerie-finley
And while this video is from 2004, please watch this 6 minutes WKRG news video and this updated WKRG video before Rodney’s final parole hearing in 2013: http://www.wkrg.com/story/23137189/questions-linger-about-guilt-of-innocence-of-rodney-stanberry