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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption / . (by Bryan Stevenson, 2014) -

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption /    .   (by Bryan Stevenson, 2014) -

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption / . , , (by Bryan Stevenson, 2014) -

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption / . (by Bryan Stevenson, 2014) -
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2014
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Bryan Stevenson
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Bryan Stevenson
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upper-intermediate
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11:05:04
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption / . , , :

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: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

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Introduction Higher Ground I wasnt prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old student at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and worried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prisonand had certainly never been to death row. When I learned that I would be visiting this prisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show. Georgias death row is in a prison outside of Jackson, a remote town in a rural part of the state. I drove there by myself, heading south on I-75 from Atlanta, my heart pounding harder the closer I got. I didnt really know anything about capital punishment and hadnt even taken a class in criminal procedure yet. I didnt have a basic grasp of the complex appeals process that shaped death penalty litigation, a process that would in time become as familiar to me as the back of my hand. When I signed up for this internship, I hadnt given much thought to the fact that I would actually be meeting condemned prisoners. To be honest, I didnt even know if I wanted to be a lawyer. As the miles ticked by on those rural roads, the more convinced I became that this man was going to be very disappointed to see me. I studied philosophy in college and didnt realize until my senior year that no one would pay me to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a post-graduation plan led me to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didnt require you to know anything. At Harvard, I could study law while pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, which appealed to me. I was uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, Americas history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another. It would have something to do with the things Id already seen in life so far and wondered about, but I couldnt really put it together in a way that made a career path clear. Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry Id made the wrong choice. Coming from a small college in Pennsylvania, I felt very fortunate to have been admitted, but by the end of my first year Id grown disillusioned. At the time, Harvard Law School was a pretty intimidating place, especially for a twenty-one-year-old. Many of the professors used the Socratic methoddirect, repetitive, and adversarial questioningwhich had the incidental effect of humiliating unprepared students. The courses seemed esoteric and disconnected from the race and poverty issues that had motivated me to consider the law in the first place. Many of the students already had advanced degrees or had worked as paralegals with prestigious law firms. I had none of those credentials. I felt vastly less experienced and worldly than my fellow students. When law firms showed up on campus and began interviewing students a month after classes started, my classmates put on expensive suits and signed up so that they could receive fly-outs to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C. It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparing ourselves to do. I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school. I spent the summer after my first year in law school working with a juvenile justice project in Philadelphia and taking advanced calculus courses at night to prepare for my next year at the Kennedy School. After I started the public policy program in September, I still felt disconnected. The curriculum was extremely quantitative, focused on figuring out how to maximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefits achieved and the costs created. While intellectually stimulating, decision theory, econometrics, and similar courses left me feeling adrift. But then, suddenly, everything came into focus. I discovered that the law school offered an unusual one-month intensive course on race and poverty litigation taught by Betsy Bartholet, a law professor who had worked as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Unlike most courses, this one took students off campus, requiring them to spend the month with an organization doing social justice work. I eagerly signed up, and so in December 1983 I found myself on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where I was scheduled to spend a few weeks working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). I hadnt been able to afford a direct flight to Atlanta, so I had to change planes in Charlotte, North Carolina, and thats where I met Steve Bright, the director of the SPDC, who was flying back to Atlanta after the holidays. Steve was in his mid-thirties and had a passion and certainty that seemed the direct opposite of my ambivalence. Hed grown up on a farm in Kentucky and ended up in Washington, D.C., after finishing law school. He was a brilliant trial lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and had just been recruited to take over the SPDC, whose mission was to assist condemned people on death row in Georgia. He showed none of the disconnect between what he did and what he believed that Id seen in so many of my law professors. When we met he warmly wrapped me in a full-body hug, and then we started talking. We didnt stop till wed reached Atlanta. Bryan, he said at some point during our short flight, capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment. We cant help people on death row without help from people like you. I was taken aback by his immediate belief that I had something to offer. He broke down the issues with the death penalty simply but persuasively, and I hung on every word, completely engaged by his dedication and charisma. I just hope youre not expecting anything too fancy while youre here, he said. Oh, no, I assured him. Im grateful for the opportunity to work with you. Well, opportunity isnt necessarily the first word people think of when they think about doing work with us. We live kind of simply, and the hours are pretty intense. Thats no problem for me. Well, actually, we might even be described as living less than simply. More like living poorlymaybe even barely living, struggling to hang on, surviving on the kindness of strangers, scraping by day by day, uncertain of the future. I let slip a concerned look, and he laughed. Im just kidding kind of. He moved on to other subjects, but it was clear that his heart and his mind were aligned with the plight of the condemned and those facing unjust treatment in jails and prisons. It was deeply affirming to meet someone whose work so powerfully animated his life. There were just a few attorneys working at the SPDC when I arrived that winter. Most of them were former criminal defense lawyers from Washington who had come to Georgia in response to a growing crisis: Death row prisoners couldnt get lawyers. In their thirties, men and women, black and white, these lawyers were comfortable with one another in a way that reflected a shared mission, shared hope, and shared stress about the challenges they faced. After years of prohibition and delay, executions were again taking place in the Deep South, and most of the people crowded on death row had no lawyers and no right to counsel. There was a growing fear that people would soon be killed without ever having their cases reviewed by skilled counsel. We were getting frantic calls every day from people who had no legal assistance but whose dates of execution were on the calendar and approaching fast. Id never heard voices so desperate. When I started my internship, everyone was extremely kind to me, and I felt immediately at home. The SPDC was located in downtown Atlanta in the Healey Building, a sixteen-story Gothic Revival structure built in the early 1900s that was in considerable decline and losing tenants. I worked in a cramped circle of desks with two lawyers and did clerical work, answering phones and researching legal questions for staff. I was just getting settled into my office routine when Steve asked me to go to death row to meet with a condemned man whom no one else had time to visit. He explained that the man had been on the row for over two years and that they didnt yet have a lawyer to take his case; my job was to convey to this man one simple message: You will not be killed in the next year. I drove through farmland and wooded areas of rural Georgia, rehearsing what I would say when I met this man. I practiced my introduction over and over. Hello, my name is Bryan. Im a student with the No. Im a law student with No. My name is Bryan Stevenson. Im a legal intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, and Ive been instructed to inform you that you will not be executed soon. You cant be executed soon. You are not at risk of execution anytime soon. No. I continued practicing my presentation until I pulled up to the intimidating barbed-wire fence and white guard tower of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center. Around the office we just called it Jackson, so seeing the facilitys actual name on a sign was jarringit sounded clinical, even therapeutic. I parked and found my way to the prison entrance and walked inside the main building with its dark corridors and gated hallways, where metal bars barricaded every access point. The interior eliminated any doubt that this was a hard place. I walked down a tunneled corridor to the legal visitation area, each step echoing ominously across the spotless tiled floor. When I told the visitation officer that I was a paralegal sent to meet with a death row prisoner, he looked at me suspiciously. I was wearing the only suit I owned, and we could both see that it had seen better days. The officers eyes seemed to linger long and hard over my drivers license before he tilted his head toward me to speak. Youre not local. It was more of a statement than a question. No, sir. Well, Im working in Atlanta. After calling the wardens office to confirm that my visit had been properly scheduled, he finally admitted me, brusquely directing me to the small room where the visit would take place. Dont get lost in here; we dont promise to come and find you, he warned. The visitation room was twenty feet square with a few stools bolted to the floor. Everything in the room was made of metal and secured. In front of the stools, wire mesh ran from a small ledge up to a ceiling twelve feet high. The room was an empty cage until I walked into it. For family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh interior wall; they spoke to one another through the wires of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were contact visitsthe two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit more privacy. The room was small and, although I knew it couldnt be true, it felt like it was getting smaller by the second. I began worrying again about my lack of preparation. Id scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasnt sure how Id fill even fifteen minutes with what I knew. I sat down on one of the stools and waited. After fifteen minutes of growing anxiety, I finally heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door. The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me, his face screwed up in a worried wince, and he quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He didnt move far from the rooms entrance, as if he didnt really want to enter the visitation room. He was a young, neatly groomed African American man with short hairclean-shaven, medium frame and buildwearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately familiar to me, like everyone Id grown up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone Id talk to on the street about the weather. The guard slowly unchained him, removing his handcuffs and the shackles around his ankles, and then locked eyes with me and told me I had one hour. The officer seemed to sense that both the prisoner and I were nervous and to take some pleasure in our discomfort, grinning at me before turning on his heel and leaving the room. The metal door banged loudly behind him and reverberated through the small space. The condemned man didnt come any closer, and I didnt know what else to do, so I walked over and offered him my hand. He shook it cautiously. We sat down and he spoke first. Im Henry, he said. Im very sorry were the first words I blurted out. Despite all my preparations and rehearsed remarks, I couldnt stop myself from apologizing repeatedly. Im really sorry, Im really sorry, uh, okay, I dont really know, uh, Im just a law student, Im not a real lawyer. Im so sorry I cant tell you very much, but I dont know very much. The man looked at me worriedly. Is everything all right with my case? Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at SPDC sent me down to tell you that they dont have a lawyer yet. I mean, we dont have a lawyer for you yet, but youre not at risk of execution anytime in the next year. Were working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer, and we hope the lawyer will be down to see you in the next few months. Im just a law student. Im really happy to help, I mean, if theres something I can do. The man interrupted my chatter by quickly grabbing my hands. Im not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year? No, sir. They said it would be at least a year before you get an execution date. Those words didnt sound very comforting to me. But Henry just squeezed my hands tighter and tighter. Thank you, man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news. His shoulders unhunched, and he looked at me with intense relief in his eyes. You are the first person Ive met in over two years after coming to death row who is not another death row prisoner or a death row guard. Im so glad youre here, and Im so glad to get this news. He exhaled loudly and seemed to relax. Ive been talking to my wife on the phone, but I havent wanted her to come and visit me or bring the kids because I was afraid theyd show up and Id have an execution date. I just dont want them here like that. Now Im going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank you! I was astonished that he was so happy. I relaxed, too, and we began to talk. It turned out that we were exactly the same age. Henry asked me questions about myself, and I asked him about his life. Within an hour we were both lost in conversation. We talked about everything. He told me about his family, and he told me about his trial. He asked me about law school and my family. We talked about music, we talked about prison, we talked about whats important in life and whats not. I was completely absorbed in our conversation. We laughed at times, and there were moments when he was very emotional and sad. We kept talking and talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized Id stayed way past my allotted time for the legal visit. I looked at my watch. Id been there three hours. The guard came in and he was angry. He snarled at me, You should have been done a long time ago. You have to leave. He began handcuffing Henry, pulling his hands together behind his back and locking them there. Then he roughly shackled Henrys ankles. The guard was so angry he put the cuffs on too tight. I could see Henry grimacing with pain. I said, I think those cuffs are on too tight. Can you loosen them, please? I told you: You need to leave. You dont tell me how to do my job. Henry gave me a smile and said, Its okay, Bryan. Dont worry about this. Just come back and see me again, okay? I could see him wince with each click of the chains being tightened around his waist. I must have looked pretty distraught. Henry kept saying, Dont worry, Bryan, dont worry. Come back, okay? As the officer pushed him toward the door, Henry turned back to look at me. I started mumbling, Im really sorry. Im really sor Dont worry about this, Bryan, he said, cutting me off. Just come back. I looked at him and struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring, something that expressed my gratitude to him for being so patient with me. But I couldnt think of anything to say. Henry looked at me and smiled. The guard was shoving him toward the door roughly. I didnt like the way Henry was being treated, but he continued to smile until, just before the guard could push him fully out of the room, he planted his feet to resist the officers shoving. He looked so calm. Then he did something completely unexpected. I watched him close his eyes and tilt his head back. I was confused by what he was doing, but then he opened his mouth and I understood. He began to sing. He had a tremendous baritone voice that was strong and clear. It startled both me and the guard, who stopped his pushing. Im pressing on, the upward way New heights Im gaining, every day Still praying as, Im onward bound Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground. It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in the church where I grew up. I hadnt heard it in years. Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction. It took a moment before the officer recovered and resumed pushing him out the door. Because his ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, Henry almost stumbled when the guard shoved him forward. He had to waddle to keep his balance, but he kept on singing. I could hear him as he went down the hall: Lord lift me up, and let me stand By faith on Heavens tableland A higher plane, that I have found Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground. I sat down, completely stunned. Henrys voice was filled with desire. I experienced his song as a precious gift. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didnt expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness. I finished my internship committed to helping the death row prisoners I had met that month. Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each persons humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own. I went back to law school with an intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments. I piled up courses on constitutional law, litigation, appellate procedure, federal courts, and collateral remedies. I did extra work to broaden my understanding of how constitutional theory shapes criminal procedure. I plunged deeply into the law and the sociology of race, poverty, and power. Law school had seemed abstract and disconnected before, but after meeting the desperate and imprisoned, it all became relevant and critically important. Even my studies at the Kennedy School took on a new significance. Developing the skills to quantify and deconstruct the discrimination and inequality I saw became urgent and meaningful. My short time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system, that maybe we judge some people unfairly. The more I reflected on the experience, the more I recognized that I had been struggling my whole life with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly. I grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula, in Delaware, where the racial history of this country casts a long shadow. The coastal communities that stretched from Virginia and eastern Maryland to lower Delaware were unapologetically Southern. Many people in the region insisted on a racialized hierarchy that required symbols, markers, and constant reinforcement, in part because of the areas proximity to the North. Confederate flags were proudly displayed throughout the region, boldly and defiantly marking the cultural, social, and political landscape. African Americans lived in racially segregated ghettos isolated by railroad tracks within small towns or in colored sections in the country. I grew up in a country settlement where some people lived in tiny shacks; families without indoor plumbing had to use outhouses. We shared our outdoor play space with chickens and pigs. The black people around me were strong and determined but marginalized and excluded. The poultry plant bus came each day to pick up adults and take them to the factory where they would daily pluck, hack, and process thousands of chickens. My father left the area as a teenager because there was no local high school for black children. He returned with my mother and found work in a food factory; on weekends he did domestic work at beach cottages and rentals. My mother had a civilian job at an Air Force base. It seemed that we were all cloaked in an unwelcome garment of racial difference that constrained, confined, and restricted us. My relatives worked hard all the time but never seemed to prosper. My grandfather was murdered when I was a teenager, but it didnt seem to matter much to the world outside our family. My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved in Caroline County, Virginia. She was born in the 1880s, her parents in the 1840s. Her father talked to her all the time about growing up in slavery and how he learned to read and write but kept it a secret. He hid the things he knewuntil Emancipation. The legacy of slavery very much shaped my grandmother and the way she raised her nine children. It influenced the way she talked to me, the way she constantly told me to Keep close. When I visited her, she would hug me so tightly I could barely breathe. After a little while, she would ask me, Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you? If I said yes, shed let me be; if I said no, she would assault me again. I said no a lot because it made me happy to be wrapped in her formidable arms. She never tired of pulling me to her. You cant understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close, she told me all the time. The distance I experienced in my first year of law school made me feel lost. Proximity to the condemned, to people unfairly judged; that was what guided me back to something that felt like home. This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. Its also about a dramatic period in our recent history, a period that indelibly marked the lives of millions of Americansof all races, ages, and sexesand the American psyche as a whole. When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated. We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; weve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, weve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison. Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. Weve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a costly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than a half-million people in state or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980. We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like Three strikes and youre out to communicate our toughness. Weve given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. Weve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them criminal, murderer, rapist, thief, drug dealer, sex offender, felonidentities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives. The collateral consequences of mass incarceration have been equally profound. We ban poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior drug convictions. We have created a new caste system that forces thousands of people into homelessness, bans them from living with their families and in their communities, and renders them virtually unemployable. Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed. Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison. Finally, we spend lots of money. Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prison builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people locked up so that they can earn more profits. Private profit has corrupted incentives to improve public safety, reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promote rehabilitation of the incarcerated. State governments have been forced to shift funds from public services, education, health, and welfare to pay for incarceration, and they now face unprecedented economic crises as a result. The privatization of prison health care, prison commerce, and a range of services has made mass incarceration a money-making windfall for a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us. After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, Ive gotten close to people who have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillian. In this book you will learn the story of Walters case, which taught me about our systems disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions. Walters experience taught me how our system traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn irresponsiblynot just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the victims of crime. But Walters case also taught me something else: that there is light within this darkness. Walters story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. Ive represented abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. Ive represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. Ive represented mentally disabled people whose illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. Ive gotten close to victims of violent crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass imprisonmentprison staffhave been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less just and merciful. Ive also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanityseeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions. Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing weve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, Ive come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe its necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, andperhapswe all need some measure of unmerited grace. Chapter One Mockingbird Players The temporary receptionist was an elegant African American woman wearing a dark, expensive business suita well-dressed exception to the usual crowd at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta, where I had returned after graduation to work full time. On her first day, Id rambled over to her in my regular uniform of jeans and sneakers and offered to answer any questions she might have to help her get acclimated. She looked at me coolly and waved me away after reminding me that she was, in fact, an experienced legal secretary. The next morning, when I arrived at work in another jeans and sneakers ensemble, she seemed startled, as if some strange vagrant had made a wrong turn into the office. She took a beat to compose herself, then summoned me over to confide that she was leaving in a week to work at a real law office. I wished her luck. An hour later, she called my office to tell me that Robert E. Lee was on the phone. I smiled, pleased that Id misjudged her; she clearly had a sense of humor. Thats really funny. Im not joking. Thats what he said, she said, sounding bored, not playful. Line two. I picked up the line. Hello, this is Bryan Stevenson. May I help you? Bryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you want to represent someone like Walter McMillian? Do you know hes reputed to be one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Alabama? I got your notice entering an appearance, but you dont want anything to do with this case. Sir? This is Judge Key, and you dont want to have anything to do with this McMillian case. No one really understands how depraved this situation truly is, including me, but I know its ugly. These men might even be Dixie Mafia. The lecturing tone and bewildering phrases from a judge Id never met left me completely confused. Dixie Mafia? Id met Walter McMillian two weeks earlier, after spending a day on death row to begin work on five capital cases. I hadnt reviewed the trial transcript yet, but I did remember that the judges last name was Key. No one had told me the Robert E. Lee part. I struggled for an image of Dixie Mafia that would fit Walter McMillian. Dixie Mafia? Yes, and theres no telling what else. Now, son, Im just not going to appoint some out-of-state lawyer whos not a member of the Alabama bar to take on one of these death penalty cases, so you just go ahead and withdraw. Im a member of the Alabama bar. I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, but I had been admitted to the Alabama bar a year earlier after working on some cases in Alabama concerning jail and prison conditions. Well, Im now sitting in Mobile. Im not up in Monroeville anymore. If we have a hearing on your motion, youre going to have to come all the way from Atlanta to Mobile. Im not going to accommodate you no kind of way. I understand, sir. I can come to Mobile, if necessary. Well, Im also not going to appoint you because I dont think hes indigent. Hes reported to have money buried all over Monroe County. Judge, Im not seeking appointment. Ive told Mr. McMillian that we would The dial tone interrupted my first affirmative statement of the phone call. I spent several minutes thinking wed been accidentally disconnected before finally realizing that a judge had just hung up on me. I was in my late twenties and about to start my fourth year at the SPDC when I met Walter McMillian. His case was one of the flood of cases Id found myself frantically working on after learning of a growing crisis in Alabama. The state had nearly a hundred people on death row as well as the fastest-growing condemned population in the country, but it also had no public defender system, which meant that large numbers of death row prisoners had no legal representation of any kind. My friend Eva Ansley ran an Alabama prison project, which tracked cases and matched lawyers with the condemned men. In 1988, we discovered an opportunity to get federal funding to create a legal center that could represent people on death row. The plan was to use that funding to start a new nonprofit. We hoped to open it in Tuscaloosa and begin working on cases in the next year. Id already worked on lots of death penalty cases in several Southern states, sometimes winning a stay of execution just minutes before an electrocution was scheduled. But I didnt think I was ready to take on the responsibilities of running a nonprofit law office. I planned to help get the organization off the ground, find a director, and then return to Atlanta. When Id visited death row a few weeks before that call from Robert E. Lee Key, I met with five desperate condemned men: Willie Tabb, Vernon Madison, Jesse Morrison, Harry Nicks, and Walter McMillian. It was an exhausting, emotionally taxing day, and the cases and clients had merged together in my mind on the long drive back to Atlanta. But I remembered Walter. He was at least fifteen years older than me, not particularly well educated, and he hailed from a small rural community. The memorable thing about him was how insistent he was that hed been wrongly convicted. Mr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but its important to me that you know that Im innocent and didnt do what they said I did, not no kinda way, he told me in the meeting room. His voice was level but laced with emotion. I nodded to him. I had learned to accept what clients tell me until the facts suggest something else. Sure, of course I understand. When I review the record Ill have a better sense of what evidence they have, and we can talk about it. But look, Im sure Im not the first person on death row to tell you that theyre innocent, but I really need you to believe me. My life has been ruined! This lie they put on me is more than I can bear, and if I dont get help from someone who believes me His lip began to quiver, and he clenched his fists to stop himself from crying. I sat quietly while he forced himself back into composure. Im sorry, I know youll do everything you can to help me, he said, his voice quieter. My instinct was to comfort him; his pain seemed so sincere. But there wasnt much I could do, and after several hours on the row talking to so many people, I could muster only enough energy to reassure him that I would look at everything carefully. I had several transcripts piled up in my small Atlanta office ready to move to Tuscaloosa once the office opened. With Judge Robert E. Lee Keys peculiar comments still running through my head, I went through the mound of records until I found the transcripts from Walter McMillians trial. There were only four volumes of trial proceedings, which meant that the trial had been short. The judges dramatic warnings now made Mr. McMillians emotional claim of innocence too intriguing to put off any longer. I started reading. Even though he had lived in Monroe County his whole life, Walter McMillian had never heard of Harper Lee or To Kill a Mockingbird. Monroeville, Alabama, celebrated its native daughter Lee shamelessly after her award-winning book became a national bestseller in the 1960s. She returned to Monroe County but secluded herself and was rarely seen in public. Her reclusiveness proved no barrier to the countys continued efforts to market her literary classicor to market itself by using the books celebrity. Production of the film adaptation brought Gregory Peck to town for the infamous courtroom scenes; his performance won him an Academy Award. Local leaders later turned the old courthouse into a Mockingbird museum. A group of locals formed The Mockingbird Players of Monroeville to present a stage version of the story. The production was so popular that national and international tours were organized to provide an authentic presentation of the fictional story to audiences everywhere. Sentimentality about Lees story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root. The story of an innocent black man bravely defended by a white lawyer in the 1930s fascinated millions of readers, despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations of rape involving a white woman. Lees endearing characters, Atticus Finch and his precocious daughter, Scout, captivated readers while confronting them with some of the realities of race and justice in the South. A generation of future lawyers grew up hoping to become the courageous Atticus, who at one point arms himself to protect the defenseless black suspect from an angry mob of white men looking to lynch him. Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fictional lawyers name to celebrate the model of advocacy described in Lees novel. What is often overlooked is that the black man falsely accused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he dies when, full of despair, he makes a desperate attempt to escape from prison. He is shot seventeen times in the back by his captors, dying ingloriously but not unlawfully. Walter McMillian, like Tom Robinson, grew up in one of several poor black settlements outside of Monroeville, where he worked the fields with his family before he was old enough to attend school. The children of sharecroppers in southern Alabama were introduced to plowin, plantin, and pickin as soon as they were old enough to be useful in the fields. Educational opportunities for black children in the 1950s were limited, but Walters mother got him to the dilapidated colored school for a couple of years when he was young. By the time Walter was eight or nine, he became too valuable for picking cotton to justify the remote advantages of going to school. By the age of eleven, Walter could run a plow as well as any of his older siblings. Times were changingfor better and for worse. Monroe County had been developed by plantation owners in the nineteenth century for the production of cotton. Situated in the coastal plain of southwest Alabama, the fertile, rich black soil of the area attracted white settlers from the Carolinas who amassed very successful plantations and a huge slave population. For decades after the Civil War, the large African American population toiled in the fields of the Black Belt as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, dependent on white landowners for survival. In the 1940s, thousands of African Americans left the region as part of the Great Migration and headed mostly to the Midwest and West Coast for jobs. Those who remained continued to work the land, but the out-migration of African Americans combined with other factors to make traditional agriculture less sustainable as the economic base of the region. By the 1950s, small cotton farming was becoming increasingly less profitable, even with the low-wage labor provided by black sharecroppers and tenants. The State of Alabama agreed to help white landowners in the region transition to timber farming and forest products by providing extraordinary tax incentives for pulp and paper mills. Thirteen of the states sixteen pulp and paper mills were opened during this period. Across the Black Belt, more and more acres were converted to growing pine trees for paper mills and industrial uses. African Americans, largely excluded from this new industry, found themselves confronting new economic challenges even as they won basic civil rights. The brutal era of sharecropping and Jim Crow was ending, but what followed was persistent unemployment and worsening poverty. The regions counties remained some of the poorest in America. Walter was smart enough to see the trend. He started his own pulpwood business that evolved with the timber industry in the 1970s. He astutelyand bravelyborrowed money to buy his own power saw, tractor, and pulpwood truck. By the 1980s, he had developed a solid business that didnt generate a lot of extra money but afforded him a gratifying degree of independence. If he had worked at the mill or the factory or had had some other unskilled jobthe kind that most poor black people in South Alabama workedit would invariably mean working for white business owners and dealing with all the racial stress that that implied in Alabama in the 1970s and 1980s. Walter couldnt escape the reality of racism, but having his own business in a growing sector of the economy gave him a latitude that many African Americans did not enjoy. That independence won Walter some measure of respect and admiration, but it also cultivated contempt and suspicion, especially outside of Monroevilles black community. Walters freedom was, for some of the white people in town, well beyond what African Americans with limited education were able to achieve through legitimate means. Still, he was pleasant, respectful, generous, and accommodating, which made him well liked by the people with whom he did business, whether black or white. Walter was not without his flaws. He had long been known as a ladies man. Even though he had married young and had three children with his wife, Minnie, it was well known that he was romantically involved with other women. Tree work is notoriously demanding and dangerous. With few ordinary comforts in his life, the attention of women was something Walter did not easily resist. There was something about his rough exteriorhis bushy long hair and uneven beardcombined with his generous and charming nature that attracted the attention of some women. Walter grew up understanding how forbidden it was for a black man to be intimate with a white woman, but by the 1980s he had allowed himself to imagine that such matters might be changing. Perhaps if he hadnt been successful enough to live off his own business he would have more consistently kept in mind those racial lines that could never be crossed. As it was, Walter didnt initially think much of the flirtations of Karen Kelly, a young white woman hed met at the Waffle House where he ate breakfast. She was attractive, but he didnt take her too seriously. When her flirtations became more explicit, Walter hesitated, and then persuaded himself that no one would ever know. After a few weeks, it became clear that his relationship with Karen was trouble. At twenty-five, Karen was eighteen years younger than Walter, and she was married. As word got around that the two were friends, she seemed to take a titillating pride in her intimacy with Walter. When her husband found out, things quickly turned ugly. Karen and her husband, Joe, had long been unhappy and were already planning to divorce, but her scandalous involvement with a black man outraged Karens husband and his entire family. He initiated legal proceedings to gain custody of their children and became intent on publicly disgracing his wife by exposing her infidelity and revealing her relationship with a black man. For his part, Walter had always stayed clear of the courts and far away from the law. Years earlier, he had been drawn into a bar fight that resulted in a misdemeanor conviction and a night in jail. It was the first and only time he had ever been in trouble. From that point on, he had no exposure to the criminal justice system. When Walter received a subpoena from Karen Kellys husband to testify at a hearing where the Kellys would be fighting over their childrens custody, he knew it was going to cause him serious problems. Unable to consult with his wife, Minnie, who had a better head for these kinds of crises, he nervously went to the courthouse. The lawyer for Kellys husband called Walter to the stand. Walter had decided to acknowledge being a friend of Karen. Her lawyer objected to the crude questions posed to Walter by the husbands attorney about the nature of his friendship, sparing him from providing any details, but when he left the courtroom the anger and animosity toward him were palpable. Walter wanted to forget about the whole ordeal, but word spread quickly, and his reputation shifted. No longer the hard-working pulpwood man, known to white people almost exclusively for what he could do with a saw in the pine trees, Walter now represented something more worrisome. Fears of interracial sex and marriage have deep roots in the United States. The confluence of race and sex was a powerful force in dismantling Reconstruction after the Civil War, sustaining Jim Crow laws for a century and fueling divisive racial politics throughout the twentieth century. In the aftermath of slavery, the creation of a system of racial hierarchy and segregation was largely designed to prevent intimate relationships like Walter and Karensrelationships that were, in fact, legally prohibited by anti-miscegenation statutes (the word miscegenation came into use in the 1860s, when supporters of slavery coined the term to promote the fear of interracial sex and marriage and the race mixing that would result if slavery was abolished). For over a century, law enforcement officials in many Southern communities absolutely saw it as part of their duty to investigate and punish black men who had been intimate with white women. Although the federal government had promised racial equality for freed former slaves during the short period of Reconstruction, the return of white supremacy and racial subordination came quickly after federal troops left Alabama in the 1870s. Voting rights were taken away from African Americans, and a series of racially restrictive laws enforced the racial hierarchy. Racial integrity laws were part of a plan to replicate slaverys racial hierarchy and reestablish the subordination of African Americans. Having criminalized interracial sex and marriage, states throughout the South would use the laws to justify the forced sterilization of poor and minority women. Forbidding sex between white women and black men became an intense preoccupation throughout the South. In the 1880s, a few years before lynching became the standard response to interracial romance and a century before Walter and Karen Kelly began their affair, Tony Pace, an African American man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, fell in love in Alabama. They were arrested and convicted, and both were sentenced to two years in prison for violating Alabamas racial integrity laws. John Tompkins, a lawyer and part of a small minority of white professionals who considered the racial integrity laws to be unconstitutional, agreed to represent Tony and Mary to appeal their convictions. The Alabama Supreme Court reviewed the case in 1882. With rhetoric that would be quoted frequently over the next several decades, Alabamas highest court affirmed the convictions, using language that dripped with contempt for the idea of interracial romance: The evil tendency of the crime [of adultery or fornication] is greater when committed between persons of the two races. Its result may be the amalgamation of the two races, producing a mongrel population and a degraded civilization, the prevention of which is dictated by a sound policy affecting the highest interests of society and government. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the Alabama courts decision. Using separate but equal language that previewed the Courts infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson twenty years later, the Court unanimously upheld Alabamas restrictions on interracial sex and marriage and affirmed the prison terms imposed on Tony Pace and Mary Cox. Following the Courts decision, more states passed racial integrity laws that made it illegal for African Americans, and sometimes Native Americans and Asian Americans, to marry or have sex with whites. While the restrictions were aggressively enforced in the South, they were also common in the Midwest and West. The State of Idaho banned interracial marriage and sex between white and black people in 1921 even though the states population was 99.8 percent nonblack. It wasnt until 1967 that the United States Supreme Court finally struck down anti-miscegenation statutes in Loving v. Virginia, but restrictions on interracial marriage persisted even after that landmark ruling. Alabamas state constitution still prohibited the practice in 1986 when Walter met Karen Kelly. Section 102 of the state constitution read: The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.* No one expected a relatively successful and independent man like Walter to follow every rule. Occasionally drinking too much, getting into a fight, or even having an extramarital affairthese werent indiscretions significant enough to destroy the reputation and standing of an honest and industrious black man who could be trusted to do good work. But interracial dating, particularly with a married white woman, was for many whites, an unconscionable act. In the South, crimes like murder or assault might send you to prison, but interracial sex was a transgression in its own unique category of danger with correspondingly extreme punishments. Hundreds of black men have been lynched for even unsubstantiated suggestions of such intimacy. Walter didnt know the legal history, but like every black man in Alabama he knew deep in his bones the perils of interracial romance. Nearly a dozen people had been lynched in Monroe County alone since its incorporation. Dozens of additional lynchings had taken place in neighboring countiesand the true power of those lynchings far exceeded their number. They were acts of terror more than anything else, inspiring fear that any encounter with a white person, any interracial social misstep, any unintended slight, any ill-advised look or comment could trigger a gruesome and lethal response. Walter heard his parents and relatives talk about lynchings when he was a young child. When he was twelve, the body of Russell Charley, a black man from Monroe County, was found hanging from a tree in Vredenburgh, Alabama. The lynching of Charley, who was known by Walters family, was believed to have been prompted by an interracial romance. Walter remembered well the terror that shot through the black community in Monroe County when Charleys lifeless, bullet-ridden body was found swinging in a tree. And now it seemed to Walter that everyone in Monroe County was talking about his own relationship with Karen Kelly. It worried him in a way that few things ever had. A few weeks later, an even more unthinkable act shocked Monroeville. In the late morning of November 1, 1986, Ronda Morrison, the beautiful young daughter of a respected local family, was found dead on the floor of Monroe Cleaners, the shop where the eighteen-year-old college student had worked. She had been shot in the back three times. Murder was uncommon in Monroeville. An apparent robbery-murder in a popular downtown business was unprecedented. The death of young Ronda was a crime unlike anything the community had ever experienced. She was popular, an only child, and by all accounts without blemish. She was the kind of girl whom the entire white community embraced as a daughter. The police initially believed that no one from the community, black or white, would have done something so horrific. Two Latino men had been spotted in Monroeville looking for work the day Ronda Morrisons body was found, and they became the first suspects. Police tracked them down in Florida and determined that the two men could not have committed the murder. The former owner of the cleaners, an older white man named Miles Jackson, fell under suspicion, but there was no evidence that pointed to him as a killer. The current owner of the cleaners, Rick Blair, was questioned but considered an unlikely suspect. Within a few weeks, the police had tapped out their leads. People in Monroe County began to whisper about the incompetence of the police. When there were still no arrests several months later, the whispers became louder, and public criticisms of the police, sheriff, and local prosecutor were aired in the local newspaper and on local radio stations. Tom Tate was elected the new county sheriff days after the murder took place, and folks started to question whether he was up to the job. The Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) was called in to investigate the murder but achieved no more success solving the crime than local officials had. People in Monroeville became anxious. Local businesses posted rewards offering thousands of dollars for information leading to an arrest. Gun sales, which were always robust, increased. Meanwhile, Walter was wrestling with his own problems. He had been trying for weeks to end his relationship with Karen Kelly. The child custody proceedings and public scandal had taken a toll on her; she had started using drugs and seemed to fall apart. She began to associate with Ralph Myers, a white man with a badly disfigured face and lengthy criminal record who seemed to perfectly embody her fall from grace. Ralph was an unusual partner for Karen, but she was in such serious decline that nothing she did made any sense to her friends and family. The relationship brought Karen to rock bottom, beyond scandal and drug use into serious criminal behavior. Together they became involved in dealing drugs and were implicated in the murder of Vickie Lynn Pittman, a young woman from neighboring Escambia County. Police had quick success in investigating the Pittman murder, rapidly concluding that Ralph Myers had been involved. When the police interrogated Ralph, they encountered a man as psychologically complicated as he was physically scarred. He was emotional and frail, and he craved attentionhis only effective defense was his skill in manipulation and misdirection. Ralph believed that everything he said had to be epic, shocking, and elaborate. As a child living in foster care, he had been horribly burned in a fire. The burns so scarred and disfigured his face and neck that he needed multiple surgeries to regain basic functioning. He became quite used to strangers staring at his scars with pained expressions on their faces. He was a tragic outcast who lived on the margins, but he tried to compensate by pretending to have inside knowledge about all sorts of mysteries. After initially denying any direct involvement in the Pittman murder, Myers conceded that he may have played some accidental role but quickly put the blame for the murder itself on more interesting local figures. He first accused a black man with a bad reputation named Isaac Dailey, but the police quickly discovered that Dailey had been in a jail cell on the night of the murder. Myers then confessed that he had made up the story because the true killer was none other than the elected sheriff of a nearby county. As outrageous as the claim was, ABI agents appeared to take it seriously. They asked him more questions, but the more Myers talked, the less credible his story sounded. Officials began to suspect that Myers was the sole killer and was desperately trying to implicate others to minimize his culpability. While the death of Vickie Pittman was news, it failed to compare with the continuing mystery surrounding the death of Ronda Morrison. Vickie came from a poor white family, several of whose members were incarcerated; she enjoyed none of the status of Ronda Morrison. The Morrison murder remained the focus of everyones attention for months. Ralph Myers was illiterate, but he knew that it was the Morrison crime that was preoccupying law enforcement investigators. When his allegations against the sheriff didnt seem to be going anywhere, he changed his story again and told investigators that he had been involved in the murder of Vickie Pittman along with Karen Kelly and her black boyfriend, Walter McMillian. But that wasnt all. He also told police that McMillian was responsible for the murder of Ronda Morrison. That assertion attracted the full attention of law enforcement officials. It soon became apparent that Walter McMillian had never met Ralph Myers, let alone committed two murders with him. To prove that the two of them were in cahoots, an ABI agent asked Myers to meet Walter McMillian at a store while agents monitored the interaction. It had been several months since Ronda Morrisons murder. Once Myers entered the store, he was not able to identify Walter McMillian among several black men present (he had to ask the owner of the store to point McMillian out). He then delivered a note to McMillian, purportedly written by Karen Kelly. According to witnesses, Walter seemed confused both by Myers, a man he had never seen before, and the note itself. Walter threw the note away and went back to what he was doing. He paid little attention to the whole odd encounter. The monitoring ABI agents were left with nothing to suggest any relationship between Myers and McMillian and plenty of evidence indicating that the two men had never met. Still, they persisted with the McMillian theory. Time was passingseven months, by this timeand the community was fearful and angry. Criticism was mounting. They desperately needed an arrest. Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate did not have much law enforcement experience. By his own description he was very local and took great pride in never having ventured too far from Monroeville. Now, four months into his term as sheriff, he faced a seemingly unsolvable murder and intense public pressure. When Myers told police about McMillians relationship with Karen Kelly, its likely that the infamous interracial affair was already well known to Tate as a result of the Kelly custody hearings that had generated so much gossip. But there was no evidence against McMillianno evidence except that he was an African American man involved in an adulterous interracial affair, which meant he was reckless and possibly dangerous, even if he had no prior criminal history and a good reputation. Maybe that was evidence enough. * Even though the restriction couldnt be enforced under federal law, the state ban on interracial marriage in Alabama continued into the twenty-first century. In 2000, reformers finally had enough votes to get the issue on the statewide ballot, where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it. A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage, 40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percent are undecided. Chapter Two Stand After spending the first year and a half of my legal career sleeping on Steve Brights living room couch in Atlanta, it was time to find an apartment of my own. When Id started working in Atlanta, staff were scrambling to handle one crisis after another. I was immediately thrown into litigation with pressing deadlines and didnt have time to find a place to liveand my $14,000 annual salary didnt leave me with much money for rentso Steve kindly took me in. Living in Steves small Grant Park duplex allowed me to question him nonstop about the complex issues and challenges our cases and clients presented. Each day we dissected big and small issues from morning until midnight. I loved it. But when a law school classmate, Charles Bliss, moved to Atlanta for a job with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, we realized that if we pooled our meager salaries, we could afford a low-rent apartment. Charlie and I had started at Harvard Law School together and had lived in the same dorm as first-year students. He was a white kid from North Carolina who seemed to share my confusion about what we were experiencing during law school. We frequently retreated to the school gym to play basketball and to try to make sense of things. Charlie and I found a place near Atlantas Inman Park. After a year, a rent increase forced us to move to the Virginia Highlands section of the city, where we stayed for a year before another rent increase sent us to Midtown Atlanta. The two-bedroom apartment we shared in Midtown was the nicest place in the nicest neighborhood wed yet found. Because of my growing caseload in Alabama, I didnt get to spend much time there. My plan for a new law project to represent people on death row in Alabama was starting to take shape. My hope was to get the project off the ground in Alabama and eventually return to Atlanta to live. My docket of new death penalty cases in Alabama meant I was working insane hours driving back and forth from Atlanta and simultaneously trying to resolve several prison condition cases I had filed in various Southern states. Conditions of confinement for prisoners were getting worse everywhere. In the 1970s, the Attica Prison riots drew national attention to horrible prison abuses. The takeover of Attica by inmates allowed the country to learn about cruel practices within prisons such as solitary confinement, where inmates are isolated in a small confined space for weeks or months. Prisoners in some facilities would be placed in a sweatbox, a casket-sized hole or a box situated where the inmate would be forced to endure extreme heat for days or weeks. Some prisoners were tortured with electric cattle prods as punishment for violations of the prisons rule. Inmates at some facilities would be chained to hitching posts, their arms fastened above their heads in a painful position where theyd be forced to stand for hours. The practice, which wasnt declared unconstitutional until 2002, was one of many degrading and dangerous punishments imposed on incarcerated people. Terrible food and living conditions were widespread. The death of forty-two people at the end of the Attica standoff exposed the danger of prison abuse and inhumane conditions. The increased attention also led to several Supreme Court rulings that provided basic due process protections for imprisoned people. Wary of potential violence, several states implemented reforms to eliminate the most abusive practices. But a decade later, the rapidly growing prison population inevitably led to a deterioration in the conditions of confinement. We were getting scores of letters from prisoners who continued to complain about horrible conditions. Prisoners reported that they were still being beaten by correctional staff and subjected to humiliation in stockades and other degrading punishments. An alarming number of cases came to our office involving prisoners who had been found dead in their cells. I was working on several of these cases, including one in Gadsden, Alabama, where jail officials claimed that a thirty-nine-year-old black man had died of natural causes after being arrested for traffic violations. His family maintained that he was beaten by police and jail officials who then denied him his asthma inhaler and medication despite his begging for it. Id spent a lot of time with the grief-stricken family of Lourida Ruffin and heard what an affectionate father he had been, how kind he had been, and how people had assumed things about him that werent true. At six feet five inches tall and over 250 pounds, he could seem a little intimidating, but his wife and mother insisted that he was sweet and gentle. Gadsden police had stopped Mr. Ruffin one night because they said his car was swerving. Police discovered that his license had expired a few weeks earlier, so he was taken into custody. When he arrived at the city jail badly bruised and bleeding, Mr. Ruffin told the other inmates that he had been beaten terribly and was desperately in need of his inhaler and asthma medication. When I started investigating the case, inmates at the jail told me they saw officers beating Mr. Ruffin before taking him to an isolation cell. Several hours later they saw medical personnel remove his body from the cell on a gurney. Despite the reforms of the 1970s and early 1980s, inmate death in jails and prisons was still a serious problem. Suicide, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, inadequate medical care, staff abuse, and guard violence claimed the lives of hundreds of prisoners every year. I soon received other complaints from people in the Gadsden community. The parents of a black teenager who had been shot and killed by police told me that their son had been stopped for a minor traffic violation after running a red light. Their young son had just started driving and became very nervous when the police officer approached him. His family maintained that he reached down to the floor where he kept his gym bag to retrieve his newly issued drivers license. The police claimed he was reaching for a weaponno weapon was ever foundand the teen was shot dead while he sat in his car. The officer who shot the boy said that the teen had been menacing and had moved quickly, in a threatening manner. The childs parents told me their son was generally nervous and easily frightened but was also obedient and would never have hurt anyone. He was very religious and a good student, and he had the kind of reputation that allowed the family to persuade civil rights leaders to push for an investigation into his death. Their pleas reached our office, and I was looking into the case along with the jail and prison cases. Figuring out Alabama civil and criminal law while managing death penalty cases in several other states kept me very busy. The additional prison conditions litigation meant a lot of long-distance driving and extremely long hours. My weathered 1975 Honda Civic was struggling to keep up. The radio had stopped working consistently a year earlier; it would come to life only if I hit a pothole or stopped suddenly enough to violently shake the car and spark a connection. After making the three-hour drive back from Gadsden earlier in the day and heading straight to the office, it was once again approaching midnight as I left the office for home. I got in my car, and to my delight the radio came on as soon as I turned the ignition. In just over three years of law practice I had become one of those people for whom such small events could make a big difference in my joy quotient. On this late night, not only was my radio working but the station was also hosting a retrospective on the music of Sly and the Family Stone. Id grown up listening to Sly and found myself rolling joyfully through the streets of Atlanta to tunes like Dance to the Music, Everybody Is a Star, and Family Affair. Our Midtown Atlanta apartment was on a dense residential street. Some nights I had to park halfway down the block or even around the corner to find a space. But tonight I was lucky: I parked my rattling Civic just steps from our new front door just as Sly was starting Hot Fun in the Summertime. It was late, and I needed to get to bed, but the moment was too good to let pass, so I remained in the car listening to the music. Each time a tune ended I told myself to go inside, but then another irresistible song would begin, and I would find myself unable to leave. I was singing along to Stand! the soaring Sly anthem with the great gospel-themed ending, when I saw a flashing police light approaching. I was parked a few doors up from our apartment, so I assumed that the officers would drive by in pursuit of some urgent mission. When they came to a stop twenty feet in front of me, I wondered what was going on. Our section of the street only ran one way. My parked car was facing in the proper direction; the police car had come down the street in the wrong direction. I noticed for the first time that it wasnt an ordinary police cruiser but one of the special Atlanta SWAT cars. The officers had a spotlight attached to their vehicle, and they directed it at me sitting in my car. Only then did it occur to me that they might be there for me, but I couldnt imagine why. I had been parked on the street for about fifteen minutes listening to Sly. Only one of my car speakers worked and not very well. I knew the music couldnt be heard outside the car. The officers sat there with their light pointed at me for a minute or so. I turned off the radio before Stand! was over. I had case files on my car seat about Lourida Ruffin and the young man who had been shot in Gadsden. Eventually two police officers got out of their vehicle. I noticed immediately that they werent wearing the standard Atlanta police uniform. Instead they were ominously dressed in military style, black boots with black pants and vests. I decided to get out of my car and go home. Even though they were intensely staring at me in my car, I was still hoping that they were in the area for something unrelated to me. Or if they were concerned that something was wrong with me, I figured I would let them know that everything was okay. It certainly never occurred to me that getting out of my car was wrong or dangerous. As soon as I opened my car door and got out, the police officer who had started walking toward my vehicle drew his weapon and pointed it at me. I must have looked completely bewildered. My first instinct was to run. I quickly decided that wouldnt be smart. Then I thought for an instant that maybe these werent real police officers. Move and Ill blow your head off! The officer shouted the words, but I couldnt make any sense of what he meant. I tried to stay calm; it was the first time in my life anyone had ever pointed a gun at me. Put your hands up! The officer was a white man about my height. In the darkness I could only make out his black uniform and his pointed weapon. I put my hands up and noticed that he seemed nervous. I dont remember deciding to speak, I just remember the words coming out: Its all right. Its okay. Im sure I sounded afraid because I was terrified. I kept saying the words over and over again. Its okay, its okay. Finally I said, I live here, this is my apartment. I looked at the officer who was pointing the gun at my head less than fifteen feet away. I thought I saw his hands shaking. I kept saying as calmly as I could: Its okay, its okay. The second officer, who had not drawn his weapon, inched cautiously toward me. He stepped on the sidewalk, circled behind my parked car, and came up behind me while the other officer continued to point the gun at me. He grabbed me by the arms and pushed me up against the back of my car. The other officer then lowered his weapon. What are you doing out here? said the second officer, who seemed older than the one who had drawn his weapon. He sounded angry. I live here. I moved into that house down the street just a few months ago. My roommate is inside. You can go ask him. I hated how afraid I sounded and the way my voice was shaking. What are you doing out in the street? I was just listening to the radio. He placed my hands on the car and bent me over the back of the vehicle. The SWAT cars bright spotlight was still focused on me. I noticed people up the block turning on their lights and peering out of their front doors. The house next to ours came to life, and a middle-aged white man and woman walked outside and stared at me as I was leaned over the vehicle. The officer holding me asked me for my drivers license but wouldnt let me move my arms to retrieve it. I told him that it was in my back pocket, and he fished my wallet out from my pants. The other officer was now leaning inside my car and going through my papers. I knew that he had no probable cause to enter my vehicle and that he was conducting an illegal search. I was about to say something when I saw him open the glove compartment. Opening objects in a parked vehicle was so incredibly illegal that I realized he wasnt paying any attention to the rules, so saying something about it would be pointless. There was nothing interesting in my car. There were no drugs, no alcohol, not even tobacco. I kept a giant-size bag of peanut M

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