The Thomas J. Dodd Center held a screening of Bryan Stevenson’s film “True Justice” Wednesday, just two weeks before he will be awarded the 2019 Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights. “True Justice” covers Stevenson’s law career and his pursuit of equal justice and an end to the death penalty.
Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 in Alabama to fight against the death penalty. In the South, especially Alabama, the death penalty was a racially-charged issue. Often during trials, the only person of color in the room would be the person being convicted. Everyone else — the judge, jury and lawyers — were white. When Stevenson was a young lawyer, it was found that convicted black people were sentenced to die 11 times more often than convicted white people. Trials like McCleskey v. Kemp, lawyers struggled to prove the presence of racial bias. The use of terms like “colored boy” and “it is in his nature,” showed this strong racial bias in the equal justice system.
Stevenson attended a segregated elementary school, and decided to become a lawyer after Brown v. Board of Education allowed him to go to an unsegregated high school. As he moved through the ranks of high school and Harvard Law School, Stevenson kept his views mostly to himself, for fear of racial backlash. But once he went to death row and interacted with the victims of horrific racial bias, he knew he needed to speak out and make a change.
Stevenson argue that even though the North won the Civil War, the South won the narrative war of white supremacy and racism. While post-Civil War lynching is (mostly) a thing of the past in the U.S., murderous racism that caused white people, often members of the Ku Klux Klan, to drag black people out of their homes and hang them without trial for minor social transgressions, still prevails today. In fact, the ambush trials, low-quality lawyers and obvious racial corruption of the court can be considered “legal lynching.”
“I thought it was very edifying I felt like I learned a lot,” Shawn Alexander, a seventh-semester computer science major, said. “I’m actually taking an Africana studies course at the moment, so a lot of this information wasn’t new to me, but one of the most important things that I got from the film was that lynching was directly tied to mass incarceration, which I had no idea about.”
One of the more moving parts of the movie was of a case Stevenson won, saving wrongly-convicted Walter McMillian from death row. Pictures of McMillian as a young man looking happy as he left the prison that had nearly killed him, paired with video footage of McMillian as a much older man, still alive, was tear-jerking. Although McMillian escaped death row, the trauma he endured while living in a cell for six years, so close to death because of his legal system, made it hard for him to reenter the real world. For a while he stayed with relatives and even with Stevenson, but the trauma continued to haunt him, and even gave him trauma-related dementia as he got older. And so, even though he was saved from death row, it still killed him.
Stevenson’s work in the Equal Justice Initiative extends beyond helping those on death row: He also focuses on children in prisons. He said when he talked to young people in poor black communities, those kids would tell him they understood they would be in prison by the time they were 21. Stevenson explained that several states don’t have a minimum age for trying children as adults. This has caused him to inspire kids as young as nine facing more than 60-year sentences. By trying children as adults, the courts disregard the kinds of misjudgement and naivety that may have led them to commit the crimes they did.
Stevenson’s life work is fighting racially charged justice system that favors guilty rich people over innocent poor people. Someone like Anthony Ray Hinton, a wrongly convicted man Stevenson freed from prison, lived on death row for 30 years, Stevenson said something needs to change. Equal justice needs to be equal. The Equal Justice Initiative introduced this concept through their Legacy Museum for lynching victims in Montgomery, Alabama. This memorial connects the injustice of the past with the injustice of our legal system today.
“I think it was a very impactful film,” Yassmine Essafi, a ninth-semester Spanish, French and Arabic triple major, said. “It reflects on many things that we’re still missing from the justice and legal system in the U.S., and how much hope that we came so far and how far we still have to go.”
After the film was shown, its associate producer Elyse Frenchman came onstage to discuss the film’s content. One woman in the audience asked Frenchman why the film focused only on Stevenson and not on the Equal Justice Initiative as a whole. Frenchman explained the use of the individual against the entire system helped to show the struggle members of the Equal Justice Initiative face. Frenchman agreed with another woman that conversation won’t change the racial bias and incarceration stigma facing people today, but this film and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative will help spread the word and make that change.
“We’re hoping to engage people in conversations,” Frenchman said. “We hope to kernel conversation, and from there people will want to go volunteer or act differently.”
Frenchman said community screenings of this film are being played across the country in prisons, schools, etc. in the hopes of changing the minds of people that may disagree with it.
“I think if a wider audience is able to access it, it will definitely make a difference, because the information that it presents, although it’s not new to me, isn’t common knowledge to a lot of people,” Alexander said. “Like how the audience was saying, if this information was to become common knowledge, it would definitely change some of the misconceptions some people have about convicts, change how people make laws in our country, and I think that’s really important because change needs to happen.”
Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.