Alabama has the highest death sentencing rate in the country per capita. What it doesn’t have: a public defender system. But it does have Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 with a mission to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment. Stevenson is the subject of a new documentary, “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” which premieres on HBO on June 26.
In the documentary, which debuted at the American Film Institute’s AFI Docs festival yesterday (June 20), Stevenson makes the case that Alabama’s death penalty laws are akin to modern-day lynchings because race factors so heavily into the assigned sentences. He also talks about his experiences with the highest court in the land.
“I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the Supreme Court and each time I go, I stand there in front of the Court, I read what it says about equal justice under the law [and] I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do,” Stevenson says in the film. Though not everyone the Equal Justice Initiative represents is innocent, Stevenson says that nuance matters in law and people “can be properly convicted and unfairly sentenced.”
Stevenson talks in detail about fighting for Warren McCleskey—a Black man accused of killing a White police officer—in an environment where “studies confirmed that people who killed Whites were over three times more likely to get the death penalty than those who killed Blacks.” Stevenson said he quickly learned in that the United States Supreme Court fundamentally believes that bias in the criminal justice system is “inevitable.”
“As a product of Brown v. Board of Education, I’d hoped our courts would not retreat from the commitment to eliminate racial bias and discrimination in American life, but the McCleskey decision was a sobering reminder that our struggle was far from over,” Stevenson tells Colorlines. “I now recognize that our nation can’t fully recover from the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation without an era of truth and repair.”
Representing people on death row for more than 30 years has confirmed for Stevenson that nothing happens in a vacuum. “You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynchings and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the legacy of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real line. And if we don’t recognize that line we’re not going to see the way that line will continue to claim lives unfairly.”
Watch a powerful exclusive clip from the documentary above.