‘just mercy’ and why we fight for people in prisons

January 17, 2020
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In 1986, a white dry cleaning clerk was shot and killed in a sleepy southern town.

According to the state of Alabama, a Black business owner named Walter Dee McMillian was to blame. They arrested him. And despite a criminal justice system that says you’re innocent until proven guilty, they put him on death row before he even had a trial, as if his guilty conviction and sentencing to death were all but a given.

McMillian had an airtight alibi. He was throwing a big church fish fry at his home with dozens of witnesses including a police officer. He had no motive. No criminal history. No physical corroborating evidence. No connection with the victim who he had never even met.

Even still, the trial only lasted a day and a half. He was found guilty by an all-white jury and the judge overrode the jury’s sentence of life in prison and sentenced him to death instead.

But McMillian was innocent. And thanks to the diligent work of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard educated attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative to advocate for those in prison, he was eventually released. When he was finally exonerated, one of the DAs said his exoneration was proof that the system works the way it’s supposed to.

But is this what justice looks like?

In America, we wrongly convict a lot of people, which means we’re sending a lot of innocent people to their deaths. According to the Equal Justice Initiative for every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated. This is a shocking rate of error, yet we continue to rely on this shoddily applied practice.

But it’s more than just innocent people who are executed for crimes they didn’t commit. There are also people who might have been guilty of what they’ve been accused of, like folks who have mental illnesses, disabilities, substance abuse issues, or people who couldn’t afford adequate legal counsel, who are being over-sentenced because that’s what our county says justice looks like. But that isn’t justice.

It’s worse for Black people. Police of official misconduct is more common in death penalty cases if the defendant is black. EJI estimates that 87% of black exonerees who were sentenced to death were victims of official misconduct, compared to 67% of white death row exonerees. Black folks make up 42% of people on death row and 34% of those executed, but only 13% of the population.

Moreover, the death penalty is not equally applied to all victims; race has a big impact on who gets sentenced to death. According to EJI, people of color are more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, sentenced to death, and executed, especially if the victim in the case is white.

The good news is that the death penalty is declining. This year Washington state became the 20th state to stop using the death penalty. Eleven states including California, Pennsylvania, and Colorado are death penalty states but haven’t actually executed anyone in over a decade. The last federal execution was in 2003, but the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice signaled it would revive the practice citing the need to “bring justice to the victims.” But the death penalty isn’t a means to achieving justice and the victims of violent crime deserve better than a shoddily and inconsistently applied practice that doesn’t make anyone safer. As Bryan Stevenson says, “The question we need to ask about the death penalty in America is not whether someone deserves to die for a crime. The question is whether we deserve to kill.”

Don’t miss Just Mercy, the film adaptation of real life superhero Bryan Stevenson’s extraordinary fight to free McMillian starring Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx, in theaters everywhere now.

Also, listen to our interview with Bryan Stevenson on Solution Sessions now.