February 22, 2009
The nourishing roots of compassion
Lawyer Bryan Stevenson sees God's grace in the death-row inmates he helps
By GARY SOULSMAN
The News Journal
MILTON -- In courtrooms for the last 20 years, Bryan Stevenson has been speaking about America's most reviled criminals to express his understanding of the Gospel -- that these are people who deserve compassion.
"Yet we're talking about people we hate, people we fear," he says.
Stevenson, 49, who says he absorbed the New Testament message while growing up on rural Sand Hill Road near Milton, has become one of the nation's most distinguished death row lawyers. He's also a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, but Stevenson brushes aside that "genius" talk.
"If I were to believe that, what should I make of the people who call me some pretty ugly things?" he asks.
His life story has a distinctive arc like some of the extraordinary men and women that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his book "Outliers: The Story of Success." Gladwell suggests that environment matters as much as individual gifts for those whose achievements fall outside the norm. So perhaps it was a happy circumstance that Stevenson was born into a strong Christian family at the end of the era of segregation, during a time when his gifts were recognized and encouraged.
You could have heard his passion for the justice of Jesus when he spoke at Rehoboth's Epworth United Methodist Church in late January. In an intense, yet graceful speaking style, he says the measure of any civilization is how the least among us are treated.
For the quiet but focused Stevenson, these are the men and women on Alabama's death row, where more than 200 await execution.
Over the years, he's objected to many Alabama convictions, and had the death sentences of 75 inmates reversed on appeal. Still, he's wanted to do more to fight poverty and racism.
So he's working on ways to bring better medical treatment -- and maybe hope -- to people in truly poor Southern communities, where he says folks earn less than $10,000 a year. And in recent years he's appealed the life sentences of 13- and 14-year-olds in many of the 19 states where juveniles have been tried as adults.
Just this month, Stevenson argued before the Delaware Supreme Court, in Dover, on behalf of Donald Torres, who, at 14, was arrested for his involvement in an arson in which four people died. Almost 20 years ago, he was tried as an adult, convicted of murder, and received a mandatory life sentence. Torres is being held at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, in Smyrna.
Stevenson knows that many people think some crimes are so heinous that the teen perpetrators should be tried as adults. But he disagrees.
"To not offer the possibility of parole is misguided even if it won't be achieved," Stevenson says. "These young people will change biologically, emotionally and psychologically.
"This is the reason we don't let them smoke, drink and vote. They are not yet adults."
He wishes he could help everyday Americans to care that the nation's inmate population has risen from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million now. He's also a realist, knowing it's hard for some to feel compassion for criminals.
And he understands. When he was 16, his grandfather, Clarence Golden, was stabbed to death in a public housing project in Philadelphia as he resisted thieves stealing his television.
"Even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer," Stevenson says. "Because of that, there is a basic human dignity that must be protected, by law."
As he makes this point in his speech at Epworth, his voice is purposeful and graceful, marked by a cadence reminiscent of a preacher who moves easily between facts that must be faced and an optimism that inspires everyone to believe in a better world not yet seen.
"If you tell a lie, you're not just a liar," he says. "If you take something that doesn't belong to you, you're not just a thief."
He believes we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. And, he asks: Who would wish to be judged that way? And where is the possibility of redemption? Or, is it just for the rich who are able to buy better treatment under American law?
"Liturgy of litigation"
The Gospel that Stevenson learned as boy while playing piano in the choir of Georgetown's Prospect African Methodist Episcopal Church has become, in the words of writer Paul M. Barratt, the "liturgy of litigation" for him today. In other words, the courtroom and prison meeting rooms are holy ground.
A gifted lawyer who has won numerous honors, such as the Thurgood Marshall Medal of Justice, Stevenson is a professor on the faculty of New York University Law School, where he teaches one day a week. About a half-dozen people also work out of New York on his Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit with an annual budget of $2 million. The rest of his staff of 34 work out of Montgomery, Ala., where Stevenson lives. Stevenson is founder and director, pointing the way on everything from strategic planning, to legal cases and fundraising.
EJI embodies a good that is widely recognized, says Christy Taylor, of Harbeson, Stevenson's sister. Whatever her brother's opponents say about his coddling criminals, he is loved and admired by friends and family, she says.
After Stevenson speaks in Rehoboth, a long line of people, many from the African-American community, wait to shake his hand, thank him and offer words of encouragement. He has also brought encouragement to them.
"Keep your eyes on the prize," he says near the conclusion of a speech that makes it clear America is not yet near a post-racial society, despite the optimism surrounding the election of President Barack Obama.
"I learned a lot from him," says Kim Book, a new member of Epworth's social justice committee. "He has to have a very deep faith and an ability to look at people through Christ's eyes and see Christ in everyone."
Taylor, who was in the audience, says that her brother has a fierce commitment to what he does.
"As much as we would like to marry him off, we recognize that he is married to his work," Taylor says.
He's also something of an ascetic. He is happy to tell people that, after promising his grandmother he would never drink, he's never had a drop of alcohol.
He works out in the gym and plays jazz piano to keep him in touch with what he calls his "peace quotient."
Though Stevenson's labor is stressful and low-paying, he says, "I'm deeply rewarded by seeing hope grow in communities defined as hopeless. And I'm enriched by the lives I've seen resurrected from condemnation.
"With the CEO of a billion- dollar company, the expectation is you will work all the time for lots of money. I simply define wealth differently."
One of Stevenson's most celebrated cases -- the freeing of Walter McMillian in 1993 after he spent six years on Alabama's death row because of perjured testimony and withheld evidence -- gained national attention on "60 Minutes." The coverage of the case brought Stevenson acclaim for his passion and abilities.
In 1995, Stevenson was awarded a $230,000 MacArthur Foundation grant for his human rights work. The money came at an opportune time, federal funds for death row appeals having been cut off by Congress.
Stevenson put the money into the work of EJI, though people advised that he set some aside for himself. Meanwhile, he planned ways to raise more of his budget from grants and donations.
Life has dealt him setbacks. He doesn't win every case, and it's painful to see people executed. In December, Stevenson learned that EJI's largest funder, the JEHT Foundation, had invested the bulk of its funds with Bernard Madoff, who has been charged with running a Ponzi scheme on investors.
EJI relied on the foundation for almost 25 percent of its budget, and that source has now dried up. Stevenson wonders how to replace the money, especially now.
But he still feels blessed.
"It's a real luxury to believe in what you do," he says.
Growing up in a modest single-story home a few miles south of Milton, Stevenson first attended the "colored elementary school." But the law changed his life, as it did that of his sister, Christy, and older brother Howard Jr.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education said separate but equal education was not good enough. The court imagined a better America not yet seen. And the court insisted that schools be integrated.
By second grade, he was attending an integrated school. But some things changed slowly. At first black kids were not allowed to climb on the monkey bars with the white students.
His father, Howard Sr., often prayed for people who were unenlightened. His mother, Alice, raised in Philadelphia, where blacks enjoyed more freedom, took a more confrontational approach.
When it was hard for white teachers to see the intelligence of her son, she lobbied hard for him to be placed in an advanced second-grade class. In time, all the Stevenson children did well.
Christy became a music teacher in the Indian River School District; Howard Jr., a psychologist in the University of Pennsylvania's graduate school of education.
During school, Bryan distinguished himself on soccer and baseball teams. He brought home all A's. He learned piano, played in church and found he could pick up songs by ear.
Later, at the urging of Cape drama teacher Harriet Jeglum, he got involved in acting, playing the starring role in "Raisin in the Sun." His sister says Jeglum also shaped Bryan's oratorical skills by getting him involved in contests he routinely won.
"There were so many people who were smart and engaged," he says. "You felt it was OK to be engaged and pulled into something."
He latched onto his calling after graduating from Eastern University and going on to Harvard Law School in 1981. At first, he did not like law school because his studies felt dry and impractical.
But in 1983, he traveled to Atlanta for a monthlong internship with the Southern Center for Human Rights. And Stevenson was suddenly involved in death-row appeals, reading trial transcripts.
"You don't have to be Christian to appreciate that everyone falls down," he says.
The first person he met on death row shared Stevenson's birthday -- Nov. 14, 1959. "It was a memorable encounter and I could imagine us being on different sides of that table," he says.
It didn't hurt that his first clients eventually had their sentences set aside. So after graduation, he returned to Atlanta and eventually expanded the outreach of the Southern Center for Human Rights into Alabama.
And in 1989, he founded the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center (now called the Equal Justice Initiative). But however much time he spends in Montgomery, he says Delaware still feels like home.
His father, retired from General Foods, is still living on Sand Hill Road. His mother died in 1999.
One of the memories he carries is being in church and hearing people with almost nothing speak of losing the little they had.
"People would stand up and say 'I wouldn't give anything for my journey,' and they meant it," he says.
Bryan Stevenson feels that way too.