Bryan Stevenson: a Cape grad making a difference

January 29, 2013

One day, listening to NPR, I heard a voice from the past: Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson, a 1977 graduate of Cape Henlopen High School, was discussing his appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was questioning the constitutionality of sentencing minors to life in prison without parole. In June 2012, the court ruled 5-4 in his favor.

Stevenson’s come a long way since I played soccer with him and his brother Howard in the mid-‘70s.

Last week he spoke at Delaware State University in support of the Delaware Repeal Project, which is seeking an end to the state’s death penalty. It had been 30 years since I’d seen him, but he looked and sounded much the same. A compelling stage presence, he managed the trick of combining an easy-going style with a burning sense of urgency.

Coming from a top law school, Stevenson could have followed an easier, more lucrative career. He chose a different path.

“I have for the last 25-plus years spent most of my time in jails and prisons standing with condemned prisoners,” said Stevenson, who lives in Montgomery, Ala.

An undergrad philosophy major, Stevenson said that in his junior year he realized “that nobody was going to pay me to philosophize.” He decided on law school, and found he hated it.

But during his second year, he took an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta, Ga., which represented men on death row. He never looked back. From 1989 to 1995, he worked for the Alabama Capital Resource Center, and since then he’s served as the executive director for the Equal Justice Initiative.

The death penalty is an emotional issue. After a horrific crime, people, understandably, demand justice. Death by execution appears to deliver that justice. Those guilty of heinous crimes, the reasoning goes, deserve no more mercy than they showed their victims. If a loved one was murdered, I would likely feel the same way.

But, as Stevenson said, it’s not whether they deserve to die, “It’s, do we deserve to kill?”

“One of the most compelling reasons in my mind for why we should get out of the execution business is that we’re so terrible at it,” Stevenson said. “We make so many mistakes. We now have 140 people exonerated - proved innocent - who were on death row in the last 30 years.” Many were freed with the help of newly available DNA evidence.

That, by itself, should be reason enough to do away with the death penalty. There is no doubt we have executed innocent men. That society has acted as cruelly and capriciously as a cold-blooded killer should chill anyone’s blood.

But there are other reasons, almost as unsettling.

One, not surprisingly, is money.

“Clients come to me and they say ‘I don’t have any money, but I’m innocent,’” Stevenson said. “And, tragically, it’d be easier if they said, ‘I’m guilty but I’ve got lots of money.’”

Only the naïve would disagree. Guilty rich people don’t get executed. Often, they don’t get convicted.

Race is another factor, and not just the defendant’s. Often in death penalty cases, it’s the victim’s race that counts.

Stevenson discussed a study that was done in Georgia. Looking at a 10-year period, researchers discovered that “You’re 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black,” Stevenson said.

Further, he said, “They found if the defendant is black and the victim is white, you’re 22 times more likely to get the death penalty.”

But here’s the shocker. Stevenson said the lawyers went “to the United States Supreme Court and said ‘You wanted some proof of discrimination … here it is.’”

The Supreme Court, he said, accepted the evidence. The justices agreed that it showed proof of racial discrimination, but rendered two very disturbing opinions.

First, Stevenson said, the court ruled that, “If we deal with racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, it’s going to be just a matter of time before people come back to us and start complaining about racial discrimination for other kinds of criminal offenses.”

But it was the second ruling that really bothered him. According to Stevenson, the Supreme Court said, “A certain quantum of discrimination is, in our opinion, inevitable.”

The decision stunned him. “Every time I go before the [Supreme] Court, I have my own little ritual, and I read where it says ‘equal justice under the law,’ and I have to believe that to go in there and do what I have to do.”

In his dissent, Justice William Brennan ridiculed the ruling as a “fear of too much justice.”

Those not afraid of too much justice can find out more about The Delaware Repeal Project at Rep. Darryl Scott, D-Dover, said the issue is likely to come up this year before the General Assembly.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter