Connecting with the Struggle Lawyer Bryan Stevenson seeks justice for indigent prisoners on Alabama’s death row B Y L A U R A C O U LT E R
ven 20 years ago, $500 wasn’t enough to hire a good ballistics expert. But that’s all the state of Alabama would cough up for Anthony Ray Hinton to prove that his gun wasn’t the one used in a 1985 double murder. The ballistics expert Hinton was able to afford was blind in one eye and had never used the equipment required to run the necessary tests. Between this meager fund and the payment to his public defender—a payment capped by law at $1,000 for out-ofcourt work—Alabama got a bargain basement deal of $1,500 on Anthony Ray Hinton’s trial. The defendant wasn’t so lucky. In spite of an ironclad alibi and the fact that the state’s one eyewitness was discredited, Anthony Ray Hinton got the death penalty. This was a case tailor-made for the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that defends indigent prisoners and those who have been denied just treatment in the legal system. In 1999, after more than 15 years on death row, Hinton welcomed EJI to his case, which is currently winding laboriously through the appeals system. Bryan Stevenson spearheads the Montgomery-based EJI, which has embraced many controversial and difficult cases since its inception in 1989. Stevenson recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with PRISM about his work on behalf of many death row inmates. A committed Christian, Stevenson has been working since law school with indigent and marginalized people caught in the crosshairs of the judicial system. Instead of reaping the financial benefits of his top-tier education and launch at a private law firm in the Northeast,
Stevenson moved to Alabama, a state which boasts one of the highest death penalty rates and some of the most shameful racial legacies in the United States. PRISM: You’re a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard School of Government. You could have gotten a job anywhere you wanted, but you chose to do this instead. Why? Stevenson: I’m also a graduate of Eastern University, and I really wanted my work to be integrated with my worldview. I went to law school without a clear sense of whether I wanted to be a lawyer or not. I was very passionate about the plight of the poor in this society, of people of color, of people who are disfavored. While in law school I looked for opportunities to explore my interest around that, and I had an opportunity during my second year to work with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Ga. I went there and observed their work for death row prisoners. I met someone on death row and started looking at these cases, and I was just incredibly compelled by the work. I mean, these were people who were literally dying for legal assistance. The quality of legal aid they were receiving was so shockingly poor that even though I didn’t think of myself as a serious law student at the time, it became clear that I could do something that could substantially help. And it was a forum that created an opportunity to talk about poverty and race and redemption and human value and justice and all of these inconsistencies in American life and politics and economic structure and in the American church. I started working with the clients on their cases while I went to law school, and when I graduated, it made absolutely perfect sense to continue doing
that work. I’ve been doing it ever since.
cal perspectives that are cloaked in Christian garb but which underneath don’t seem very integrated. I don’t want to be critical of other institutions, but I am critical of the way the church is sometimes used that is wholly inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. We’re not forced to explain ourselves if we say we’re a Christian organization and our top goal this year is to fight tax increases, which is what we see so much of in this state. I spend a lot of time talking to evangelicals, some of whom I think come from very conservative communities, and so much of what I encounter is a real lack of thought. This notion that God is Republican, and therefore every Republican speaks for God—it’s scary how comfortable some folks have gotten with that. Obviously Christians are called to reject the notion that God’s a Republican or a Democrat, that God belongs to us and to no one else, that our Christianity is intended to justify morally our pursuit of wealth and power and our distance from the problems of the poor and disadvantaged. To me that just doesn’t settle with the life of Christ. At a minimum, I think we need to talk about these things.
PRISM: In what ways does your faith inform the work that you do? Stevenson: Well, in several ways. I grew up in kind of a marginalized community where faith was central to how people reconciled themselves to a disfavored status. For me, faith had to be connected to works—you have to do something with what you believe in some way that reflects and expresses your belief. Faith is connected to struggle; that is, while we are in this condition we are called to build the kingdom of God. We can’t celebrate it and talk about it and then protect our own comfort environment. I definitely wanted to be engaged in something that felt redemptive. So much of what I do is a reaction to what I characterize as a profound absence of hope. I think we condemn people in this society because we are hopeless about the potential for human redemption and rehabilitation. We execute people because we are hopeless about our capacity to achieve restoration and reform. For me, faith is about rejecting all of that stuff and engaging problems with some hope and not accepting the kind of hopelessness that legislators and politicians and judges have embraced. That is the broader way in which it has informed and shaped my work. A more immediate way is that I’m really comfortable with measuring my level of success and my ultimate reward in terms of things that are nonmaterial. To me, if I can feel affirmed and energized by what I’m doing with someone in crisis within an institution that’s corrupted by power, if I can feel engaged in some process of transformation in dealing with these problems, then I feel really, really, fortunate.Yes, I had options that maybe some people don’t get, but if you do something you’re not engaged by just for money, it’s not dramatically different from someone who doesn’t have many options. So for me, options just create a responsibility to be purposeful and thoughtful about what you’re doing.
PRISM: I’ve heard spokespeople for evangelical organizations make the argument that God not only permits the death penalty but actually requires it. What’s your response to that? Stevenson: I’d say it’s not, in my view, an integrated understanding of the Scriptures. Jesus says, when asked about the death penalty, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” It doesn’t say it’s absolutely not permissible. I think what Jesus says (and what I believe) is that the question about the death penalty is not “Do some people deserve death for the crimes they commit?” but rather “Do we deserve to kill?” Are we so perfected, so beyond sin, so comfortable in our condition of grace that we are now capable of picking up the stones and throwing them? Jesus understood that we are never in that condition. We are saved by grace. We are perfected only through love and through daily acts of redemption and suffering and struggle and prayer and reflection; we never get to the point where we can act on this arguably permissible, scriptural authority to kill. Evangelicals say we believe that we’re put on the planet to spread the gospel and share the love of Christ, but to me it’s wholly inconsistent to be committed to that task and yet to want a secular government to eliminate folks before that act of ministry and
PRISM: One of the major social groups that oppose your fight against the death penalty is evangelicals. But in theory, they too believe in redemption and share your concept of God. Why do you think that is? Stevenson: I don’t know. I worry about what I would call institutional Christianity—cultural preferences and politi-
reconciliation can be completed. I am thoroughly convinced by the transformations that I see in people. I don’t believe that anybody is beyond the grace of God. I’ve known a lot of people on death row about whom I could say, “This person is ill” or “This person may never be in a position to be released,” but I’ve never met anybody about whom I could say, “This person is beyond redemption—his life has no value, no meaning, no purpose— and it is morally justifiable to kill him.” And I certainly have not encountered a system of government or government officials about whom I could say, “These folks have it together; they are so beyond discrimination against the poor, so infallible that they should absolutely decide who lives and who dies.” We don’t deny that we’ve got clients who’ve done horrific things that deserve really severe punishment. We just don’t think that a state like Alabama, or Mississippi, or Georgia, or Pennsylvania, or New York, or California has the capacity to exercise these perfect judgments. Because when you kill a human being, you can’t make mistakes—it requires perfection.
necessarily a person of faith—that we begin to come around. Any meaningful conversation about where we are has to focus on this: Why have we so frequently allowed ourselves to sit silently in church pews while horrific abuses and injustices and evil are being tolerated, oftentimes with our support? That’s the challenge, I think, for all of us, because we’ve seen the church do so many things that undermine the kingdom of God. Human history is filled with volumes of gross abuse and evil, all in the name of God. Unfortunately, people are still very comfortable using God and Christianity to legitimate conduct that is very ungodly. PRISM: What is your opinion of the Tookie Williams execution in California last December? What kind of message does it send? Stevenson: Well, as you know, I oppose all executions, because I believe all people are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done. I think Williams’ case represented that in a very dramatic way. Here was someone who was vilified, hated—a notorious gang leader associated with a lot of terrible violence—but who then, while on death row, became someone with a real gift for redirecting lost kids and trying to dismantle gang violence. He was credible and effective in ways that very few people who were not under a death sentence, who were not locked down, have been. I think he exemplified the reality that if you tell a lie, you’re not just a liar; if you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you’re not just a thief; if you kill somebody, you’re not just a killer. And that’s something we should celebrate, not execute. And we should celebrate it not just for him but for all of us, because we’d all like to believe that we’re more than our worst act. We can all get past the mistakes we’ve made, the things we’ve done that have caused others to suffer. And our ability to do that successfully is actually strengthened when we can look at the Tookie Williamses of this world who show that transcendence. But I also think that it says something about the politics of the death penalty. I don’t think anybody questioned, really, that he was an outstanding candidate for clemency, but again, so much of the death penalty is about showing who is tough and who is not. The governor of California wasn’t thinking about people who recognized the transformation of Tookie Williams; he was thinking about folks who were going to see him as tough if he refused clemency. I don’t think it was a position about Tookie Williams, per se, but rather a question of whether granting clemency would help his political career or not. And that is the problem with the death penalty—it’s sensitive to the dynamics of American politics that will frequently interfere with correct moral judgments.
PRISM: Alabama has more churches per capita than any other state in the country, yet it sentences more people to death than any other state. Is there a relationship? Stevenson: I think there’s something really corruptive at play in a lot of our churches. We have politicians, both locally and nationwide, who are preaching fear and anger. They don’t want Christians and people of faith thinking about how to love, how to restore, how to serve, how to respond to the suffering of those without. They want them angry. They want them angry about Hollywood and angry about people who are gay and angry about liberals and angry about taxes. They want them fearful of crime and fearful of terrorism and fearful of all these threats.That then yields social and political policies that are very predictable. What that will give you is a desire for the death penalty, support for mass incarceration, resistance to social justice, indifference to the poor, contempt for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized. This explains how we can be so saturated with churches and religious institutions and yet so silent on social justice issues and so lax in doing the things Jesus called us to do. The same level of religiosity, the same number of churches existed when we were comfortably defending segregation in this state. Churches have comfortably defended segregation and Jim Crow laws and comfortably tolerated lynching. Many of them comfortably accepted slavery. The comfort level of religious institutions and people expressing Christian ideology in the face of horrific human suffering, tragedy, and abuse has some historical antecedent. It’s only when we get past that—usually because we’re pushed by somebody who’s not
PRISM: The number of really tragic, unjust cases that you deal with must be overwhelming. Which case has affected you the most personally? Stevenson: It’s hard for me to identify one case. They all affect me in different ways. Right now I’m representing a man who’s been sitting on death row for 20 years, and he’s innocent. He really struggles to reconcile how there can be a God or any justice with what he’s had to go through. Both of us are struggling to make sense of it. All of those things weigh on you. Last year there was a different set of cases; next year it could be a different set; and so it just goes on and on. Each case is compelling in its own way. Some get more attention than others, just because of the nature of the issues, but for me they all have their own little room in my heart and are equally and infinitely important.
How is that going? Stevenson: We argued the case last fall. We’ve been waiting for a ruling; it’s still pending at the court of appeals. I feel the evidence is very conclusive about his innocence; I don’t have any doubts that he’s entitled to be released. Whether the courts will recognize that is the harder question. It’s a hundred times harder to get the courts to recognize that they’ve made a mistake.We’re not good at acknowledging mistakes and we’re very good at ignoring them; those conditions make it very hard to get relief for somebody like Anthony Hinton. PRISM: You try to encourage people who are in situations like these, but how does your own faith not founder when you see such injustice? Stevenson: There are definitely days when I am dispirited by what appears to be the permanence of so much injustice. That is part of the struggle. I am suspicious of anyone who doesn’t drop a few tears along the road, because I would question wheth-
PRISM: I’m assuming that the death row case you were talking about earlier was the case of Anthony Ray Hinton.
Death Penalty Facts in Black and White Many of these statistics were cited on the website of the Death Penalty Information Center (deathpenaltyinfo.org), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
• Since 1973, over 120 people have been released from death row thanks to evidence proving their “actual” innocence (this is distinct from procedural innocence, which is when a conviction is overturned on the basis of a legal technicality). From 2000-2004, 35 inmates were exonerated and freed from death row. (Staff Report, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, October 1993, with updates from the Death Penalty Information Center)
• Ninety-eight percent of the chief district attorneys in death penalty states are white; only 1 percent is black. (Professor Jeffrey Pokorak, Cornell Law Review, 1998)
• In 96 percent of the states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, a pattern was evident of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both. (Professor David Baldus report to the ABA, 1998)
• Eighty-three people currently on death row in the U.S. were sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Alabama and Texas alone are responsible for sentencing 51 percent of those juveniles to death. Outside of the United States, only five countries continue to execute juvenile offenders: Iran,Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria. Last year, the US. Supreme Court finally struck down the juvenile death penalty, 5-4, in Roper v. Simmons. (Equal Justice Initiative website, March 27, 2006)
• A study in California found that those who killed whites were over three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks and over four times more likely than those who killed Latinos. (Pierce & Radelet, Santa Clara Law Review, 2005)
• As of fall 2004, 3,399 men and 53 women were on death row. (NAACP LDEF, “Death Row USA Fall 2004”) Approximately 45 percent of prisoners on death row are white, 41 percent are black, 10 percent are Latino/a, with other racial groups comprising less than 3 percent. (Death Penalty Focus website, March 27, 2006)
er that person was seeing everything that needs to be seen. But the good thing is that when you look back, you realize there are all these formative things that have happened. We are told that every valley shall be exalted, crooked places will be made straight, rough places will be made plain, and with that history it becomes a lot easier to say, “Yeah, this is unacceptably, unbearably bad and wrong, but I’m not the first person to have confronted that.” For me, faith is acknowledging that and still pressing on. In my church growing up, when something really horrible confronted you— you lost someone important, your house had burned down, or you didn’t know what you were going to eat the next day —that’s when you would stand up and sing, “I wouldn’t take
nothin’ for my journey now.” Because in that struggle there is an opportunity for triumph. And the triumph deepens you, and your capacity to overcome grows. If you run from that, you might not experience all the pain but you don’t get the triumph either. That’s what I talk about with people like Mr. Hinton and my young clients and folks who are really struggling. And it’s also the way we go about our jobs here at EJI. We struggle here. It’s hard to raise money and train folks and supervise them. You move from season to season, but rather than say, “I don’t feel weak today, I’m not tired,” I say, “I am tired. I feel bad. That really hurt. That was incredibly dispiriting.” You have to acknowledge and be honest about the struggle.
Welcoming the Brokenhearted
a bowl of tap water for its voyage around the circle. His wife, Roberta Mothershead, who grew up Quaker and helped to open Nazareth House, is one of the first to receive it. Mothershead left her successful veterinary practice to devote herself to hospitality. The healing water soon reaches Peggy Kandies, who anoints her own head and crosses her chest, all the while cuddling her tiny rat terrier under a blanket. Kandies does not live in this house, nor does she belong to the Covenant Community, but is a guest of honor this evening. She has been coming to Raleigh for the past 12 years to visit her son, Jeff, on death row. In December 2004, she met Scott Langley and Sheila Stumph, who first opened Nazareth House’s predecessor in a small rented bungalow a quarter-mile from Central Prison. Before that, Kandies often slept in her car before driving back to Goose Creek, S.C., five hours to the south. She and two more parents from the suburbs of Charleston have been regular guests at the hospitality house for the past 18 months. When all three would visit Langley and Stumph in the bungalow, it made for a full house, with the young Catholic Workers sleeping in the laundry room. Both North Carolina natives, Bass and Mothershead had served the homeless in another Raleigh neighborhood but had been praying—for years—that a young Catholic Worker couple would come and help them open a larger hospitality house. At 29 and 28 years old, with years of voluntary poverty, personal service, and civil disobedience behind them, Langley and Stumph were the answer from heaven, by way of another Catholic Worker community in Boston. Almost as soon as the two couples met, they began praying and planning to merge. After walking through the big stone house with a real estate agent early in 2005, they were confident this was the house they’d been praying for. It lies in a working class neighborhood, on a popular pedestrian path between homeless
Two couples provide hospitality for families of death row inmates BY JESSE JAMES DECONTO
It is dusk, the first Sunday in Lent. Sixteen members of a house church called Covenant Community have gathered in the spacious front room of Nazareth House in Raleigh, N.C. The group is discussing the age-old question of just how much human temptation and suffering Jesus really faced. “People have been executed over that argument—the divinity and the humanity,” says Scott Bass, an ordained Baptist minister and a cofounder of Nazareth House. “You do know that?” he asks, teasing a middle-aged couple who had been debating the point.While Bass comments on the elusive nature of the question, what he is really pointing out is the human tendency to use violence to settle our differences. Nazareth House exists to fight that urge. This Catholic Worker community provides food and lodging to families of local death row inmates and organizes nonviolent political action against capital punishment.Vigils outside the North Carolina Central Prison ring with prayers confessing the idolatry of human sacrifice and the pride of refusing to admit that we have no legislative answer for the violence that plagues the human race. Covenant Community, which floats from house to house, is another part of this resistance movement. After a communal confession from Psalm 51, Bass christens
PRISM: What would you want the readers of the magazine to know about the work you do or your approach to justice? Stevenson: One thing is that a lot of us really deprive ourselves of opportunities for incomparable joy and extraordinary spiritual affirmation and meaning when we shield ourselves from engaging people who are in crisis, suffering, sick, in prison. What I’d like to communicate to everyone is that if you get proximate to death row prisoners, to people who are struggling, and you just bear witness to their struggle and assist them when you can, there is this extraordinary redemptive experience that will reach you. Don’t go into it thinking that you’re doing this for somebody else; understand that you’re doing this for yourself, because I guarantee
you’ll get more from it than you’ll give. I think when we shield ourselves from those sort of experiences we deny ourselves a lot of miraculous redemptive excitement that being a person of faith can offer us. Another thing, with specific regard to EJI, is that we are empowered whenever people affirm, support, encourage, or embrace any aspect of what we’re doing. Then our capacity to affirm, encourage, and uplift the people we serve is just unlimited. ■ Laura Coulter is an Alabama-based writer who has covered many U.S. justice issues for PRISM in recent years, from Guantanamo Bay to the juvenile correctional system.
died for your sins.’ It’s never so forward as to say, ‘Jesus was executed by the state,’ but that’s the reality of it.” Langley has been organizing death row parents to support his friend, an attorney named Jim French, who has been trying to sue the state on the grounds that Thursday night last suppers leading to Friday executions mock his Christian faith. For the past few months, Langley has also been helping to lead civil disobedience actions on the nights before North Carolina’s executions, which take place at 2 a.m. on Fridays. He believes risking arrest and going to jail are the only ways to identify with the poor, mentally ill, or addicted folks who often find themselves in the same situation. In the living room worship service, looking monkish beneath the hood of his trusty black sweatshirt, Langley adds to the prayer that circles his living room: “For all those who will spend tonight in prison somewhere in our country,” he says. Bass moves to the center of the room, lifts a loaf of bread from atop a wooden chest, and sums up the story of the man from Nazareth as he tears the bread in half: “He reminded us that the Bread of Life is connected with brokenness.” Nazareth House is indeed a broken home, haunted by the spirit of an executed Messiah, incarnate in the families of the state’s next victims. “You know, they should take that gurney—if they’re going to execute somebody with the malice and the hatred that they do—and stand it up just like the cross,” Peggy Kandies says later, after the worship service. “Because it is the cross. The only thing is, they’re strapped down, and Jesus was nailed down.”
camps in southeast Raleigh and social service offices in the central city, but the price was still too high. They waited a year, the price dropped by a third, and in January the house on Poole Road—all 4,400 square feet of it—was theirs. The two couples moved in together and officially opened Nazareth House, with help from dozens of supporters who cleaned and painted bedrooms, demolished and rebuilt a bathroom, and removed squirrels from the attic. No sooner had they opened their doors than more hurting families began finding their way to the doorstep. In March and April, Nazareth House hosted immediate family members of the condemned on the nights of their executions. North Carolina has about 170 people on death row, almost all men. Only five states have more. That’s 170 families who might come to Raleigh to visit their sons, fathers, or brothers. The four Nazareth House residents pick visitors up from the train station, feed and lodge them, and also host curious Christians who come to learn about their ministry. Organizing fellow Christians to fight the death penalty is central to the Nazareth House mission. Stumph and Langley hatched the idea for the house during a trip to his native Texas, where the Southern Baptist Church runs a hospitality house near death row in Huntsville. Whereas the Baptists shy away from death penalty politics, Stumph, whose father is a former Catholic priest, and Langley, whose mother is a Methodist minister, wanted to combine resistance with their service to death row families. “When you grow up in the church, being a Christian, it all kind of revolves around the death penalty,” explained Langley earlier this year. “If you believe in Jesus and follow Jesus, and he was executed, how can you avoid the death penalty issue, if you’re a Christian?” He paused for a few moments, searching for clarity. “The wording is usually, ‘Jesus died on the cross’ or ‘Jesus
Jesse James DeConto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill, N.C. He writes regularly for PRISM, most recently about migrant Christmas tree harvesters in the U.S. as well as the victims of Uganda’s LRA rebels.