Editor’s note: Senior at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, Amanda Bair, is a Cambridge native with plans to major in pre-med and creative writing following high school. Bair chose to interview author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Al. Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, also a movie, was part of the curriculum for one of Bair’s classes and the impetus behind her interview with him.
Said Bair, the book mainly follows the story of Walter McMillian, a man falsely accused of murdering an eighteen-year-old girl in Alabama, as Stevenson fought to prove his innocence. Throughout the story, Stevenson also details several other cases he worked on and the victims he helped. “We watched the movie as part of a field trip, and it focuses mainly on McMillian’s journey off of death row. Both are incredibly inspiring to all who experience the content,” said Bair.
Stevenson is from Milton, De. and has family in Cambridge.
What follows is Bair’s transcription of her interview.
B: My English class just read your book, Just Mercy. What advice would you give to students who are considering to pursue law degrees in the future? Is there any advice you wish you could have received before starting your journey?
S: There is currently a crisis in adequate legal representation for poor people in this country. As a result, the system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. Poor people are often sent to prison for crimes they did not commit or sentenced to excessively long terms of incarceration. The need for dedicated attorneys to represent the poor is urgent, and there are several paths to becoming a legal advocate for the poor.
S: EJI encourages young people who hope to pursue law school to prioritize self-reflection and proximity to the issues and those impacted by them.This can help people determine how to best use their gifts towards criminal justice reform work. In college, it can be helpful to take courses that explore issues of racial injustice, economic injustice, and the criminal justice system through a structural and/or historical lens while also working directly with people and organizations in the community who are actively engaged in direct services and/or advocacy work.
B: As someone who grew up in a small town on Delmarva, did you ever believe you would be where you are now, having the opportunities and meeting the people you do now? Do you have any advice for high school students in similar situations who may not see themselves achieving similar goals?
S: EJI started its work by representing people on death row in Alabama because those were the most vulnerable people in the system. For 20 years, we never imagined the profile that our organization has now, largely because that was not what was most strategic for our clients. Our work was more akin to the Underground Railroad:be discreet and stealthy, and get things done quietly. It wasn’t until the atmosphere outside the courtroom became so hostile that it was impacting what could get done that we began to consider doing the public education and narrative work that we do now. Our goal has always been to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable, and we are excited about anything that helps us do that more strategically and successfully.
S: For high school students, finding opportunities to support work happening locally in your community is an important step that you can take at any point. There are several Maryland-based organizations on the list of criminal justice reform organizations on our website. Being really clear on the problem that you want to solve or transform and then pursuing work that keeps that goal at the center is a good way to set yourself up to be an impactful advocate in the future.
B: Did the case of Dorchester County native Kirk Bloodsworth ever impact your work?
S: Kirk Bloodsworth is one of 166 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1973. At EJI, we talk a lot about this rate of error. For every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated. Like many of these 166 cases, Mr. Bloodsworth’s case involved prosecutorial misconduct. Information that suggested Mr. Bloodworth was not guilty was illegally withheld from his legal team. In death penalty cases, perjury/false accusations and official misconduct are the leading causes of wrongful convictions. It is because of people like Mr. Bloodsworth that we believe the death penalty should be abolished in the United States.
B: How has the success of the book and movie impacted the Equal Justice Initiative?
S: Just Mercy has led to greater awareness of our work, the injustices our clients face, and the historical legacies that account for those injustices. We are hopeful that this will move our country closer to achieving racial justice and economic justice in the criminal justice system.
B: How has your life changed since the book and movie were released?
S: More people are visiting our Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL, and we have been invited to an increased number of speaking engagements. At the same time, we are still engaged in the work of representing many clients. This keeps us busy, but we are happy to be busy doing this kind of activism. We understand that it is what you do with your life that can make a difference in the legacy of racial and economic injustice in this country.