Bryan Stevenson finds calling in life on death row

December 30, 2014

For Bryan Stevenson, it was a homecoming, a chance to see family and friends.

Stevenson, whose book “Just Mercy” recently debuted at No. 10 on The New York Times bestseller list, spoke Dec. 14 at the Eagles Nest Fellowship Church near Milton.

His sister, Christy Taylor, introduced him, pride in her voice. “I’ve been talking about him for a hundred years,” she said. (It hasn’t been quite that long. I went to high school with him.)

His father sat in the audience. A crowd of people, black and white, came out on a cold Sunday evening to hear him talk about his life’s work, representing prisoners on death row.

Stevenson’s life is, in some ways, a contradiction. He’s come a long way since his days growing up in a poor black community on the outskirts of Milton.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Stevenson went on to argue before the Supreme Court, give a wildly successful TED talk, become a best-selling author. He’s appeared on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report.

But he didn’t attain those heights chasing money or celebrity. He reached them by dedicating his life to advocating on behalf of the most shunned and despised members of society.

Death row, as Stevenson tells it, was where he found his calling in life. Death row was where he learned the first big lesson that would change his life: the importance of proximity.

Having landed at Harvard Law School, perhaps the ultimate ticket to the good life in America, Stevenson found himself sorely disillusioned.

He had gone to law school, he said, because he wanted to do something about justice, poverty and racial inequality. But at Harvard, Stevenson said, “It didn’t seem like anyone was talking about justice. They were talking about civil procedure and torts.”

He considered abandoning his dream of becoming a lawyer. But during his second year he took a course that sent him down to the Deep South - Atlanta, Ga. - where he worked with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represented men on death row.

One of first assignments was to go to death row and tell a man that, within the next year, he wasn’t in danger of being executed.

Excited about the opportunity, he asked, “Which lawyer is going to come with me?”

We can’t spare a lawyer, he was told, that’s why we asked you.

“I was terrified,” he said. “The more I prepared myself, the more anxious I became.”

He was overwhelmed. He kept thinking about how disappointed the prisoner was going to be to learn he wasn’t even a lawyer. “I don’t know anything,” Stevenson recalled thinking, “I’m just a law student.” He wouldn’t be able to answer the man’s questions about the death penalty or the appeals process.

At the prison, the man was brought out, covered in chains, which took some time to remove. Flustered, Stevenson began by apologizing for not being a lawyer, for his lack of knowledge. Finally, he got around to delivering the message: You’re not at risk for execution this year.

The prisoner asked him to repeat what he had said. Stevenson told him again.

Stevenson said the prisoner grabbed his hand and said, “I can not tell you how grateful I am that you’re here. You’re the first person I’ve actually talked to who’s not a death row prisoner or a death row guard in the two years I’ve been on death row.”

He hadn’t wanted his wife and children to visit because he was afraid they’d show up and he’d already have an execution date. “Now I’m going to see my wife and kids,” he told Stevenson. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The meeting over, the guards began blanketing the man with chains for his walk back to his cell. Stevenson said the guards began treating the man roughly, throwing him against the wall and chaining him so tightly he grimaced in pain. Stevenson tried to get the guards to stop but was ignored.

The prisoner noticed Stevenson’s discomfort and said, “Bryan, don’t you worry about this. Just come back.”

“Chained as he was, pushed as he was,” Stevenson remembered, “this man closed his eyes and he threw his head back and he started to sing.”

Stevenson knew the hymn well from his boyhood, singing with a church choir in Milton: “I’m Pressing on the Upward Way.”

“There was something in that man’s song that changed me,” Stevenson said.

The formerly frustrated law student found himself afire to learn everything he could about the death penalty, criminal procedure, the Constitution - anything that would bear on his ability to fulfill his new mission in life. A hymn from his childhood, sung by a condemned man, had provided what a year and a half at one of the nation’s top law schools did not.

“Proximity,” Stevenson said, “gave me a calling.”

Proximity is just one of the four factors that Stevenson thinks can help people heal our nation. In a future column I’ll address the others.

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