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One Lawyer's Fight For Young Blacks And 'Just Mercy'

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One Lawyer's Fight For Young Blacks And 'Just Mercy'

One Lawyer's Fight For Young Blacks And 'Just Mercy'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who represents those who have been abandoned. His clients are people on death row, abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and placed in adult prisons where they are beaten and sexually abused and mentally disabled, people whose illnesses helped land them in prison where their special needs were unmet. He's challenged racial bias and economic inequities in our justice system. He's argued six cases before the Supreme Court and won a ruling holding that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life without parole if they are 17 or younger and have not committed murder.

Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is based in Alabama, and he's a professor at NYU Law School. His awards include the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he grew up in what he describes, as a poor and racially segregated settlement in Delaware. Bryan Stevenson is the author of the new memoir "Just Mercy."

Bryan Stevenson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So there's a story I want to start with. It's a story of something that happened to you, which leads me to believe you have great understanding of what happened to Michael Brown and other unarmed, black men who were shot by the police. And this is a story about when you'd been practicing at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee for about four years. You're a young man in your 20s. You'd just moved into a new apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. You had a roommate, and you got home after a long day at work, you sat in the car listening to Sly and the Family Stone because that was like your pleasure of the day (laughter) listening to them on the radio. And then you see a police car that stops, and you didn't know what they were doing there. You didn't realize they were coming for you. So what happened?

BRYAN STEVENSON: Right. Yeah, it was late at night. I had been working actually on a case involving a young man who had been killed by police in Alabama. And I was just really enjoying the fact that my radio was playing. It didn't usually play, and I was listening to these songs sitting outside my apartment. And then the police car pulled up, and I was curious what they were looking for. And they shined the light on me, and I realized that, oh, they're here for me.

And I got out of my car. I was going to explain to them that this is where I live. And before I could say a word, the police officer pulled a gun, pointed it at my head and said move and I'll blow your head off. And I saw him standing there. His hands were shaking. I was terrified, and I had this moment of just crisis. And I put my hands up, and I began saying, it's OK, it's all right, it's OK, it's all right. And I was completely confused.

I had a moment where I thought these aren't real police. They were actually Atlanta SWAT officers, which meant that they didn't wear the traditional police uniform. They were all dressed in black - black boots, black pants, black shirt. And he was just so menacing and threatening, and he kept saying move and I'll blow your head off. And a second officer got out of the car, came behind my car, came up behind me, threw me on the back of the vehicle and wouldn't let me reach into my wallet to get my driver's license to show that this is where I lived. And it just turned into this horrible ordeal where they kept me out there for 15 minutes. Neighbors were coming out. People were complaining about other burglaries in the neighborhood. They were asking the police to interrogate me about their missing items. You know, ask him if he has my vacuum cleaner, ask him if he took my cat. And it was sort of surreal and terrifying.

One of the officers did a completely illegal search of the vehicle, went inside the car, started digging around, opened up the glove compartment. I had, like, bazooka bubblegum and M&M candies that he went through and then tossed aside. I could never persuade them that I was there legitimately. And after they found nothing in the car and they confirmed that they didn't have a warrant for me, I asked them to apologize and they wouldn't. The officer who left said you should be lucky you got away. Next time we'll get you.

GROSS: You say in the book that your first impulse was to run.

STEVENSON: No one had ever pointed a gun at me like that before. I was terrified. I just, you know, a kid growing up in the country, yeah, that was my first instinct. And I was at that point a lawyer who had done police misconduct and civil rights cases for several years. And so I knew to say, it's all right, it's OK, but I had to take control of that situation and calm everybody down and that's terrifying.

GROSS: So let's just say for a second if you weren't a lawyer, if you didn't have experience, if you hadn't thought a lot about what people do when confronted with the police that gets them in to trouble, honestly you might've been dead, right?

STEVENSON: No question. And, you know, I - you know, I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do a lot of things that people do. And if the officer had found something in my car it would not have been legal or appropriate for me to be arrested or prosecuted under those circumstances, but that happens all the time as well. And then the narrative would shift, and no one would've had any sympathy for the fact that I was just sitting there, minding my own business, trying to get into my own apartment. And I think the great burden for me from that experience was knowing that most of the kids in that neighborhood weren't prepared for that. I was running around, you know, going up to strange, young kids saying do you know what to do when this happens? Are you ready? And I was overwhelmed with a sense of fear and anxiety about whether kids were prepared to manage that and survive.

GROSS: Let me just ask you was this neighborhood in which you were stopped, a neighborhood that you had just moved into, was it predominantly white?

STEVENSON: It was. My neighbor - my roommate - was actually another - was a classmate from Harvard Law School. And we had lived in really low-income sections of the city because we both were low-paid, public interest lawyers. And, you know, it was a middle-class, working-class neighborhood in Midtown, Atlanta, but most of the people on that particular block were not African-American. And just sitting in my car listening to music for 10 or 15 minutes while I was actually getting my legal papers ready for the next day is what made me a target for this kind of assault.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Stevenson. He's a lawyer who represents people on death row children, the mentally ill. He founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. He also teaches at NYU and he's the author of a new book called "Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption."

At the center of your book is the story about a prisoner on death row whose case you took on because he always maintained his innocence. And you not only believed him, you found a kind of trail of clues showing you that the people who testified against him were lying. It was an unusual case for many reasons. And one of them was that the jury convicted him of life without parole, but the judge overturned that sentence and gave him the death penalty instead. When you decided to take on this appeal, a person called you who didn't - you didn't realize he was the judge who condemned him. And what did the judge want you to do? What the judge tell you?

STEVENSON: Well, the judge didn't want me to take the case. And what was so surreal about this case was that all of these things that weren't supposed to happen kept happening. You know, I went to the prison to meet him first, this condemned man. And he told me that he'd been placed on death row for 15 months before the trial. And I thought, you know, that's not what's supposed to happen. And then I got back to my office, and I got a call from a man named Robert E. Lee Key, who was the judge who had condemned him to time, who told me that I shouldn't take the case, that this was not the kind of case that I should get involved with.

And then I went to the community and met dozens of African-Americans who were with this condemned man at the time the crime took place 11 miles away who absolutely knew he was innocent. And they told the police, and the police didn't do anything. And it was just one thing after the other. But yeah, it was a very, very bizarre start to my career and to the work that I was doing in Alabama. Having a judge call up and say, hi, I'm Robert E. Lee Key, and I don't want you taking this case, was a pretty big turnaround for me.

GROSS: Why do you think the judge did not want you to take the case?

STEVENSON: Well, I think everyone knew that the evidence against Mr. McMillian was pretty contrived. There was no logical sensible story about how he could have committed this crime. As I said, there were dozens of people who were with him 11 miles away. The story given by the testifying witness made absolutely no sense. The police couldn't solve the crime, and there was so much pressure on the prosecutor, on the system of justice to make an arrest that they just felt like they had to get somebody convicted. And I think to a certain extent, there was this complicit - you know, there was this complicity with a wrongful conviction, and getting an outside lawyer might challenge that. I think that was one of the reasons why the judge didn't want me involved.

And the second was that it was a pretty clear situation where they just wanted everybody to forget about this man. Let him get executed so everybody could move on. The case of involved a young, white woman who was murdered in downtown Monroeville - a lot of passion, a lot of anger in the community about her death. And I think there was great resistance to someone coming in and fighting for the condemned person who had been accused and convicted.

GROSS: One of the things you found was that the sheriff and a couple of other law enforcement authorities basically coerced the person who testified against Walter McMillian, who you were representing, and it was all lies. You even found tapes...

STEVENSON: Yeah, it's...

GROSS: ...That had evidence of the coercion. I think they paid him, too, to do it. And, I mean, it's such an incredible miscarriage of justice. So, you know, you presented all of this in court, and you got him released after being on death row for how long?

STEVENSON: Six years, six years. And you're right, it was pretty surreal. They did coerce the witnesses to testify falsely against him and for some bizarre reason tape-recorded some of these sessions. So you hear this tape where the witness is saying, you want me to frame an innocent man for murder, and I don't feel right about that. And the police officers are saying, well, if you don't do it, we're going to put you on death row, too. And they actually did put the testifying witness on death row for a period of time until he agreed to testify against Mr. McMillian. Other witnesses were given money in exchange for their false testimony.

But it was challenging because even when we presented all of that evidence and we presented Mr. McMillian's strong alibi, the first couple of judges said no, we're not going to grant relief. It took us six years to get a court to ultimately overturn the conviction. And I think it speaks to this resistance we have in this country to confronting our errors, to confronting our mistakes.

One of the really bizarre parts of this whole case for me was this whole episode took place in Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee grew up and wrote "To Kill A Mockingbird." And if you go to Monroeville, you'll see a community that's completely enchanted by that story. They love the story. They have all of this "To Kill A Mockingbird" memorabilia. The leading citizens enact a play about the book. And you can't go anywhere without encountering some aspect of that story made real in that community. And yet when we were trying to get the community to do something about an innocent African-American man wrongly convicted, there was this indifference - and in some quarters hostility. This is one of the few cases I've worked on where I got bomb threats and death threats because we were fighting to free this man who was so clearly innocent. And it just reveals this disconnect that I'm so concerned about when I think about our criminal justice system.

GROSS: You have cousins who are police officers. Is that a healthy connection for you to have in the sense that you've seen a lot of police responsible for mistreating people who they have arrested? You were mistreated by police very early in your law career. Is it helpful to be reminded that there's a lot of really good people who are police, including your relatives?

STEVENSON: Well, it is. But, you know, I actually am always mindful of that even that without that personal connection. I mean, we need law enforcement officers who are committed and brave and dedicated and hardworking and smart. If I had three professions I would double the salaries of, one would be teachers, the second would be police officers and law enforcement and the third would be social workers because I think they play a critical role in a society as devastated by dysfunction and drugs and racism and bias and poverty as our society, so I've always had that.

And I meet people all the time - law enforcement officers, correction officers - in the McMillian case, one of the things that turned the case around was the appointment of two ABI investigators who just took an honest approach to the case and helped us show the evidence of innocence to prosecutors. So that's always been clear to me that we need people performing these roles in our society who are uncorrupted by the cynicism, who are not distracted by bigotry and bias against the poor, people of color, who are informed and educated about the challenges of mental disability and age.

GROSS: My guest is Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the new memoir, "Just Mercy." We'll talk more after a break.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest, Bryan Stevenson, is the author of the memoir, "Just Mercy." He's the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which represents people on death row, abused and neglected children and the mentally ill and challenges racial and economic bias in the criminal justice system. When we left off, we were talking about representing Walter McMillian, who was on death row, convicted of a murder he didn't commit.

You know, one of the stories I told myself in reading your story about this case was Walter McMillian, the man who was on death row who was actually innocent, that when he was on trial the first time around, he was probably represented by a lawyer who didn't really want to take the case and who didn't really care and didn't really spend a lot of time doing research and didn't present a very convincing argument in court. And then I read that one of his lawyers was JL Chestnut, who's actually a celebrated civil rights lawyer. I interviewed him years ago. He wrote a memoir about the civil rights movement, about the march, you know, on Selma.

STEVENSON: Right.

GROSS: And I couldn't understand why the case seemed to have been handled so poorly even with the celebrated civil rights attorney.

STEVENSON: Well, I - yeah. Yeah. No, JL Chestnut is an amazing lawyer, and his co-counsel, Bruce Boynton, were both, you know, very strong advocates. And I think it just spoke to the resolve in that community to convict Mr. McMillian. If you read the transcript, you'd say no reasonable jury should convict this person. It's not so much that they lost the case. I think they, in this one instance, underestimated the resolve that some of these folks had to convict even an innocent person and to condemn them to die.

And, you know, I think, you know, sometimes the challenge with these cases is that you have to prove innocence. You can't go into court with the presumption of innocence, assuming that your client is presumed innocent. That's the way it's supposed to work, but in many of these cases, that's not the way it does work. And if you go into court thinking that your client is presumed innocent, you're going to get an outcome that is not satisfactory.

And it took hundreds of hours to kind of uncover some of the things that we had to uncover. The case was forced to trial. It was rushed to trial. They moved it out of the county, where the population is 43 percent African-American, to a county that has less than a 10 percent African-American population. And that really undermined the effort that his attorneys made.

GROSS: Something I found really sad in the story is - OK, so you get Walter McMillian out. He's freed from death row. He's freed from prison. It's proven that he was not guilty of the murder. He returns to his work, which is in the timber business cutting down trees. He injures himself, breaks his neck, recovers from that partially, but then gets dementia. And not long after he's freed, he ends up in a home for people with dementia. And because he is not clear-minded anymore, he thinks he's back on death row. And I found that so upsetting because the mind plays such tricks on you. And to finally be freed, yet to then have dementia and think that you're not, that you're back on death row - that's such a nightmare.

STEVENSON: It is a nightmare. And I think one of the things that pains me...

GROSS: There's nothing you can do about that. As the best lawyer in the world, there's nothing you can do about that.

STEVENSON: No, that's right. Well, I think one of the things that pains me is that we have so tragically underestimated the trauma - the hardship we create in this country when we treat people unfairly, when we incarcerate them unfairly, when we condemn them unfairly. You can't threaten to kill someone every day, year after year and not harm them, not traumatize them, not break them in ways that is really, really profound.

And yet, when innocent people are released, we just act like they should be grateful that they didn't get executed. And we don't compensate them many times. We don't help them. We question them. We still have doubts about them. And I saw that create this early onset dementia - which many of the doctors believed was trauma-induced - was a function of his experience of being nearly killed. And he witnessed eight executions when he was on death row. And during those days, people were executed in the electric chair. And he would talk about smelling flesh burning as people were executed. And it was a really horrific experience for him.

And you're right. When that comes full circle - and he's sick, and he's in a hospital, and he's saying to me, you got to get me off death row again - it's heartbreaking. And one of the things I just wanted people to kind of understand is that we can't continue to have a system of justice defined by error and unfairness and tolerate racial bias and bias against the poor and not confront what we are doing to individuals and to families and to communities and to neighborhoods. And Walter is in some ways a kind of a microcosm of that reality. He's representative of what we've done to thousands of people. And we ought to want to stop doing that.

GROSS: Bryan Stevenson will be back in the second half of the show. He's the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the new memoir "Just Mercy." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is based in Alabama and challenges racial and economic inequities in our criminal justice system. His clients are people on death row, abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and placed in adult prisons and the mentally disabled. He's written a new memoir called "Just Mercy." When you've represented somebody on death row and tried to get them off death row and fail, do you witness their execution?

STEVENSON: I have, yeah. There have been a couple of times when I've done that and it's a surreal experience. I got involved in cases early on where the case was very close to execution. And there was really no opportunity, no meaningful opportunity, to stop the execution but it felt like it was important to fight for that condemned person anyway. Our system has really shifted over the last 20 years. I think in the '70s when the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty, they said death is different. We want heightened scrutiny, heightened review.

Over the last 25 years, you've seen how that's flipped. How we are actually sometimes less willing to give close scrutiny to death penalty cases because we're in such a rush to execute people. I'm worried about the fact that we've elevated finality over fairness, and in these early cases, we had some evidence that suggested that these people had been unfairly sentenced but every court said too late. And in one of the first cases I ever dealt with where the man was executed, was a surreal case where, you know, I got that call from the Supreme Court denying the last stay motion.

I drove down to be with this man before his scheduled execution, and was standing back there before he was going to be executed and they, you know, they shave the hair off the person's body before they put them in the electric chair. And we're standing there, very emotional conversation, holding hands, praying, talking. And him saying to me - I remember him saying to me - he said, Bryan, it's been such a strange day. When I woke up this morning, the guards came to me and said what do you want for breakfast? And at midday, what do you want for lunch? In the evening, they came back and said what you want for dinner? And all day long, he said, they kept saying what can we do to help you? Can we get you stamps to mail your last letters? Can we get you water? Can we get you the phone to call your friends and family? And I'll never forget that man saying, Bryan, it's been so strange. More people have said what can I do to help you in the last 14 hours of my life than they ever did in the first 19 years of my life.

And I remember standing there, holding his hands, thinking yeah where were they when you were three years old being abused? Where were they when you were seven and you were being sexually assaulted? Where were they when you were a teenager and you were homeless and struggling with drug addiction? Where were they when you came back from war, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?

And with those kinds of questions resonating in my mind, this man was pulled away and executed. So it's a really surreal and, I think, deeply destructive act to kill a person who's not a threat to other people. But that's our system and that's one of the reasons why getting people closer to that system is one of my new priorities.

GROSS: What do you think it meant to him to know that you were there as a witness to the execution?

STEVENSON: I think for him and his family it meant that he was still a human being. You know, when I give talks about this issue I tell people that I don't believe that any person is their worst act. I think all of us are more than the worst thing we've done. I think if somebody tells a lie they're not just a liar. I think if someone steals something they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone you're not just a killer. And we think we're executing killers and that's all they are. And when you surround people who've been condemned with some measure of humanity, some measure of dignity, I think that changes and I think for him and his family - but also, I hope for the system of justice, it represented something that was important about what we're doing to other people.

GROSS: One of the cases that you write about is about one of the children who you represented. He was, I think, 13. And he was in prison for having shot his mother's boyfriend after he witnessed the mother's boyfriend abusing her, and she ended up unconscious and bleeding. And the son wasn't even sure if she was alive. She was kind of out cold for about 20 minutes, bleeding profusely, and I don't know whose gun it was that the boy used?

STEVENSON: It was the boyfriend - the mother's boyfriend's gun that he had hidden away in a dresser drawer.

GROSS: So the boy took the gun, shot and killed the mother's boyfriend. So he's in prison. You're trying to represent him. And you go to visit him, he's uncommunicative. And he finally just kind of breaks down crying and tells you what's been happening to him in prison, which was...

STEVENSON: Yeah, it's one of the real tragedies that we continue to tolerate in this country. I went to the jail and there's this little kid, he's 14 and he's just tiny and he won't say a word. And after 20 minutes of trying to get them to talk to me, I finally went around and got close to him, I said look you got to talk to me. I can't help you if you don't talk to me. And at one point, I leaned on him and I put my arm around him and when I did that he just collapsed into me. And he started crying hysterically, and began telling me nothing about his mom, nothing about the man, but he started talking to me about the jail.

He told me on the first night that he had been there, he'd been hurt by several men and then he told me on the next night he'd been sexually assaulted by several people. And then he told me on the night before I'd gotten there, so many people had hurt him and sexually assaulted him, he couldn't remember how many there had been. You know, and I held that little boy while he cried hysterically for almost an hour and when I left the jail, I couldn't help but think who is responsible for this? And I realized we are. We are a society that has allowed our fear and our anger - we've allowed these false narratives about children being super predators and other such nonsense - to create policies where we are putting children in peril. And I just - I really was never the same after that. We got that little boy out of there and we ultimately got a good outcome for him. But it's, again, one of the ways in which this disconnect has made us a less fair, less just society.

GROSS: What was the outcome that you got because it's not like he was innocent of shooting and killing a man? Doesn't mean he should have been sentenced to repeated rape by adult men.

STEVENSON: That's exactly right, you know. And I think this was an act of a child, you know. And so what we were able to do was to get him out of the adult criminal justice system and back into the juvenile system, which meant that he would have a better chance at getting services and treatment and would likely, if he demonstrated that he was not a threat to public safety, you know, get out sooner than if he had been sentenced to life without parole, which is what happens to a lot of children who act just like he did, who commit acts of violence in circumstances just like he has. And unfortunately, it's more likely that a child like that will be prosecuted as an adult today than it was, you know, 40 years ago and that's part of this dishonesty, you know.

We are very clear that children are not like adults when it comes to whether they can drink or smoke or vote. In a lot of states, you can't even buy firecrackers or get a tattoo until you're 18. And yet, if you commit a criminal act, we pretend as if you're just like an adult. And that phenomenon has, I think, created tremendous injustice in this country and what we've done to children is really unconscionable. That there are 13 and 14-year-old kids who have been condemned to die in prison, who are being abused and assaulted because of our indifference to child status, is one of the things I'm deeply concerned about.

GROSS: You've argued several cases before the Supreme Court. In 2010, you won a case regarding life imprisonment without parole when applied to children. Tell us what the outcome of this case was.

STEVENSON: Yeah. So the first case was actually about children who had been convicted of non-homicides, crimes that did not involve murder - burglary, assault, a range of crimes - and there were dozens of children who had been condemned to life without parole for those kinds of offenses. And so we went to the Supreme Court and argued that a life without parole sentence for a child of 13 or 14 or 16 for a non-homicide was cruel and unusual punishment and the court agreed and banned these death in prison sentences for children convicted of non-homicides.

My client was a young kid named Joe Sullivan, who was 13, who had been sentenced to life without parole in Florida for a crime we don't think he actually committed. And he had had a horrific time in prison. Again, experiencing a lot of sexual assault, developed multiple sclerosis, is now in a wheelchair but it meant that his sentence would be reduced and we're now very hopeful that Joe will be released soon, as have many other people who had been condemned to these death-in-prison sentences, including a lot down in Louisiana. Louisiana had a large population of children who were sent to Angola, the notorious plantation prison in Angola, Louisiana. And we've done a lot of work there where we've now gotten reduced sentences for dozens of people who are sentenced to life without parole.

GROSS: My guest is Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the new memoir "Just Mercy." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us my guest is Bryan Stevenson and he's the author of the new book "Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption." And he's a lawyer who works with - most of his clients are poor. They're African-American, they're on death row or they're children who have been incarcerated, the mentally ill. And he's the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Equal Justice Initiative, which you founded is based in Alabama and represents clients in the South. Have you ever felt that you were discriminated against within the legal system yourself - as a professional within the legal system - because you're African-American?

STEVENSON: Oh, sure. I mean, I think that happens all the time - and not just in the South. Actually with the juvenile cases, with the cases involving children, I've been representing kids all over the country. We have clients in California, in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, everywhere. And I was in a courtroom in the Midwest not too long ago getting ready for a hearing - it was my first time there - and I had my suit on; I was sitting at defense counsel's table. I wanted to be early and the judge walked out followed by the prosecutor and when the judge saw me sitting at the counsel table he looked at me and he said hey, hey, hey, you get out of here. I don't want any defendant sitting in my court room until their lawyers get here. You go back out there in the hallway and wait for your lawyer. And I stood up and I said, oh, I'm sorry your honor my name is Bryan Stevenson. I'm actually the lawyer representing the client today, and the judge started laughing and the prosecutor started laughing and I made myself laugh too because I didn't want to disadvantage my client. And then my client came in; he was a young, white kid who I was representing. And we did the hearing, and I went to my car after that and I was really just tired. You know, you get so burdened down, you know, it's exhausting confronting these presumptions. And I was worried about being in front of a judge that was prepared to presume my dangerousness, my status, even though I was in a suit just because of my race. And so yes, it happens all the time. And it's actually - one of the reasons why our newest project at EJI, at the Equal Justice Initiative, is really trying to change the conversation about race in this country. We've done a very poor job of really reflecting on our legacy of racial inequality. And you see it in the South but it's everywhere. And we want to talk more about slavery and we want to talk more about this era between Reconstruction and World War II, which I call an era of terrorism, of racial terror and violence that shaped attitudes. I want to talk more about the civil rights era - not through the lens of celebration - we're too celebratory of civil rights these days. You know, we have these 50 anniversaries and everybody's happy and everybody's celebrating, nobody's talking about the hardship. You know, it's almost as if the civil rights movement was this three-day event. On day one, Rosa Parks didn't give up her seat on the bus, on day two, Dr. King led a march on Washington and on the third day, we signed all these laws. And if you think about that history in that way, you minimize the trauma, the damage, the divides that were created. You can't segregate and humiliate people decade after decade without creating long-lasting injuries. And so our newest project is really trying to introduce some concept of what transitional justice requires - some commitment to truth and reconciliation. You know, at the end of the civil rights movement, we didn't tell the truth about what our history had done to us. And as a result of that we haven't reconciled ourselves to that history. And that manifests itself in my work every day, for me as an African-American professional, but also for my clients, and more importantly for the communities my clients are coming from.

GROSS: Your grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved in Virginia. Did she tell you stories that were passed on to her about slavery?

STEVENSON: Oh absolutely. Her parents were born into slavery in Bowling Green, Virginia in the 1840s and she was born in the 1880s. And because her father learned to read as a child and had to keep it secret, you know, his parents were terrified that he had figured out how to read. And they wanted him to use that skill to help them figure things out when emancipation came, but they were terrified of him revealing to anyone he knew how to read. Even after emancipation, my grandmother would tell me that he didn't like people to know he could read, but he desperately wanted her to learn to read. And that orientation was incredibly impactful for me. You know, my grandmother had a wisdom and a perspective that was shaped by the experience of slavery. She had all of these ways of making us cope with a world, prepare for a world where there would be these barriers. You know, she'd say things like I'm going to teach you how to grow up on the rough side of the mountain because that's what you're going to have to climb if you want to get where you're trying to go. And I think that was very definitely shaped by slavery and her own experience growing up during terror, during the era of lynching and convict leasing and all of these horrific threats that she had to navigate until she got to Philadelphia where she raised my mom.

GROSS: Since your grandmother told you stories about how her father was afraid to let people know that he could read because he was a slave and then, you know, a freed man, did that help instill in you a sense that reading and education were actually really important and it was almost, like, subversive to be smart?

STEVENSON: Oh absolutely. My mom, her daughter, was just one of these people who believed that, you know, you had to learn to read as early as possible, you needed to be surrounded by books. My parents didn't go to college and were denied opportunities that I ultimately got. But, you know, my mom went in debt to buy World Book Encyclopedia so we could have that in our poor house. And she went in debt to buy me Dr. Seuss books because she - as she used to say all the time - I love to see you all reading. And that was, you know, very much intention in odds with our environment where most of the adults got on buses to go work in the chicken factory, and where there were limited opportunities for education. And so yes, I think that my great-grandfather's learning to read and understanding the power of that and my grandmother's respect for him was passed on to me.

GROSS: You've been working with people on death row, with the poor, with children who have been convicted of crimes, with the mentally ill for years. You started this work in the 1980s. Give us an example of something that you think has improved in the justice system since that time...

STEVENSON: Sure.

GROSS: ...And something that you think has gotten worse since that time.

STEVENSON: Well, I think recently we've begun to recognize that we cannot sustain the level of incarceration that we have created. In the last couple of years, the prison population has been stabilizing; the federal prison population has decreased recently. And you hear in various states across this country a different kind of debate going on about how are we going to reduce our prison populations? Maybe we shouldn't just settle for being tough on crime, maybe we need to be smart on crime and right on crime. We've seen some maturation on the war on drugs. I think most people now recognize that we do far better in this country if we treated drug dependency as a health care problem rather than a criminal justice problem. And I'm very encouraged about that. We won these cases at the U.S. Supreme Court - the 2010 case and then a 2012 case. I went back in 2012 and the court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for children, so I think the status of children is shifting in hopeful ways. What's discouraging is the way in which we have continued to tolerate error, the way in which we've continued to accept a system where poverty is so condemning. You know, our criminal justice system is shaped by wealth, not culpability. And the way in which we have made so little progress on race and the legacy of racial inequality that we are still allowing the presumption of dangerousness and guilt to kill so many young kids. I mean, the new statistic from the Bureau of Justice is really disheartening. The Justice Department is now reporting that one in three black male babies born in the 21 century is expected to go to jail or prison - the statistic for Latino boys is 1 in 6. That statistic was not true in the 20 century; it was not true in the 19 century. And that means we've got enormous work to do to improve our commitment to society that is not haunted and undermined and corrupted by our legacy of racial inequality.

GROSS: Bryan Stevenson, thank you so much for talking with us.

STEVENSON: You're very welcome.

GROSS: Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the new memoir "Just Mercy." You can read the chapter about representing the 14-year-old boy who was sexually assaulted while serving time in an adult prison on our website - freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR.

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