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July 01, 2011

Human Rights Hero: Bryan Stevenson

by Stephen B. Bright

Brandon Washington, sentenced to death in Alabama, had virtually no appellate review of his case in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. His court-appointed lawyer filed a thirteen-page brief that cited only three cases—two Supreme Court cases decided in 1920 and 1963 and a Fifth Circuit case decided in 1955—and said oral argument was not needed.

Fortunately for Washington, Bryan Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), intervened in his case, filed a comprehensive brief, and won a reversal of the death sentence from the Alabama Supreme Court on an issue that had not even been raised by the court-appointed lawyer.

It was one of eight reversals of death sentences obtained by Stevenson and his colleagues at EJI in the last two years. In two of those cases, they obtained reversals at the Alabama Supreme Court after intervening where equally bad briefs had been filed and death sentences upheld at the Court of Criminal Appeals. They also obtained remands of four other cases to trial courts to present evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection.

In response to the habitual practice of striking blacks from serving on juries in capital and other serious felony cases by southeast Alabama District Attorney Douglas Valeska, Stevenson and his team filed a civil rights lawsuit in October 2011 on behalf of prospective jurors struck by Valeska seeking an injunction to prevent him from continuing the practice. In 2010, EJI completed a comprehensive study of racial bias in jury selection, Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy. The study concluded that people of color continue to be excluded from jury service because of their race.

Stevenson and his lawyers are also representing over seventy-five clients in at least fifteen states sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for crimes committed as juveniles. The Supreme Court recently granted review in two of those cases to decide whether the sentence may be imposed on children who are convicted of murder at the age of fourteen. Stevenson argued Sullivan v. Florida before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. The Court ruled the sentence is unconstitutional for children in nonhomicide cases in the companion case, Graham v. Florida.

Stevenson founded EJI’s Post-Release Education and Preparation program, a reentry initiative designed to assist people who entered adult prisons as juveniles and have been incarcerated for years and who therefore face unique challenges upon release.

He also launched the Black Belt Education Project, a program to expose high school students from Alabama’s rural Black Belt region to social justice issues through workshops with EJI staff.

These are only the most recent and ongoing developments in an extraordinary life that includes proving the innocence of Walter McMillan, who spent six years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he did not commit; challenging Alabama’s law that allows elected judges to override jury verdicts of life imprisonment in capital cases; teaching at New York University Law School since 1998; inspiring and training dozens of young attorneys; and winning the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award in 1995.

Stephen B. Bright

Stephen B. Bright is president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School.  He received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award in 1998.