“Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”
— Reinhold Niebuhr
The Tiger Transit bus belched smoke and stench; I was wedged behind it in September 2016 when I noticed a placard affixed to the bus that said “Just Mercy.” Boom, I thought, what a phrase — swollen with possibilities.
I discovered Bryon Stevenson, attorney/co-founder of Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative, wrote “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Auburn University selected “Just Mercy” as its 2016-17 Auburn Connects! Common Book program.
Then-Auburn University Provost Timothy Boosinger said, “Regardless of your major, I urge you to read ‘Just Mercy’ as it examines the issues of justice and mercy…’ When we can as members of the Auburn family be ‘doing justly, loving mercy…’ (George Petrie, Auburn Creed).
In 1983, at age 24, Stevenson began his internship with the Southern Prison Defense Committee. The committee’s lawyers learned inmates were again being executed in Deep South prisons; however, the inmates were denied access to legal counsel. An affront to Gideon v. Wainwright, Supreme Court 1963, which found states are required under the Sixth Amendment to provide attorneys for destitute defendants. The court has held since, in addition to indigent defendants, convicted defendants filing a first appeal have a constitutional right to counsel.
In November 1988, Stevenson appealed Walter McMillian’s conviction. A jury convicted him for murdering Ronda Morrison in Monroeville. Stevenson observed the death row inmates at Holman Correctional Facility were all poor. A coincidence? That realization steeled Stevenson who developed a maxim. The opposite of poverty is not wealth; it’s justice. For 23 hours a day, McMillian was bird caged in a 5-foot by 8-foot cell. In the summer, he roasted — temperatures soared above 100 degrees. Some will interject, he murdered Morrison. Keep reading.
Stevenson’s objective: Save McMillian from being fried in the electric chair. Whereas Monroeville citizens were agog about the “To Kill a Mockingbird Museum” and badgered Stevenson to squander investigative time to visit the museum, which celebrated a fictitious lawyer and a fictitious case. An irony, that’s profound. Stevenson said the citizens celebrated the “To Kill a Mockingbird” story with fervor and enthusiasm, but were nonsupportive in McMillian’s case.
Ralph Myers, the state’s indispensable witness, said at gunpoint McMillian forced him into the truck. McMillian claimed his arm was injured, thus he ordered Myers to drive to the Jackson Cleaners. Myers stopped at the cleaners, and McMillian went inside for a long time. Myers left to buy cigarettes. He didn’t call the police, didn’t tell them he’d been kidnapped at gunpoint. Huh. Instead, he drove back to the cleaners. What? McMillian emerged and told Myers he had murdered Morrison. However, McMillian allowed Myers to drive back to the gas station and retrieve his vehicle. Really? I told the story to three co-workers. “That’s crazy. Oh wow. That’s bull, cockamamie. Wow. That’s stupid,” they said.
During the appeal process, Stevenson filed a Rule 32 petition, which allowed him to access the state’s evidence. It included cassette tape recordings in which Myers said he knew nothing about the Morrison murder. Myers absolved McMillian in six additional statements he gave to the police. However, the DA withheld that evidence from McMillian’s lawyer — a Brady violation.
District Attorney Tom Chapman didn’t try the original case, but during the appeal process, doubts about the evidence that convicted McMillian barged in. He requested ABI officials in Montgomery re-examine the evidence. ABI agents Tom Taylor and Greg Cole concluded McMillian was completely innocent. The Morrison murder case remains unsolved.
Soon thereafter, Judge Pamela W. Baschab released McMillian, the charges against him baseless. However, the malicious false imprisonment damaged McMillian. Its effect — irreparable.
I recommend “Just Mercy” the book and “Just Mercy” the movie. They reveal how the EJI’s advocacy infuses the Alabama justice system with just mercy.
Marc D. Greenwood is a Camp Hill resident and weekly columnist for The Outlook.