Last Line of Defense

Bryan Stevenson weighs matters of life and death

Published in 2009 Alabama Super Lawyers magazine

By Courtney Mault on May 4, 2009


One of Bernard Madoff’s casualties was the JEHT Foundation, a grant underwriter formerly based in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit dedicated to prisoner defense based in Montgomery, relied on JEHT for nearly 25 percent of its budget. Now the EJI is just hoping for a miracle.

“You’re treated much better in [Alabama’s legal] system if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” says the initiative’s founder, Bryan Stevenson. With an annual budget of just under $2 million, his organization is representing nearly half of the 200 condemned prisoners facing execution in the state. And that’s with a staff of 10 lawyers.

Because Alabama abides by an appointment rather than public defender system, and is the sole state without government funding for death row prisoners, financial losses have an even more acute effect on organizations like EJI. “The timing couldn’t have been worse,” he says of losing support from the JEHT (short for Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance) Foundation. “Our resources are already stretched.”

Stevenson isn’t new to the fight. He began representing death row prisoners in 1985. Four years after graduating from Harvard Law, he founded the EJI’s predecessor organization, Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center. Since then, his staff has had sentences reversed or reduced for more than 70 death row prisoners. “I don’t care who you are, I believe that we are all more than our worst act,” he says.

He’s troubled by Alabama’s interpretation of Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case that ensures all criminal defendants receive legal assistance. The state not only appoints lawyers who may have minimal capital experience—some don’t even practice criminal law—but the compensation doesn’t begin to match the work required. “Until recently, even in death penalty cases, lawyers appointed to represent the accused could not be paid more than $1,000 for their out-of-time, which is shockingly low,” he says. “No matter how well intentioned a lawyer may be, if they’re not prepared to do the work, the client will suffer. In capital cases, the client will die.”

Aside from traveling across the state and country to speak on human rights issues, Stevenson has a professorship with New York University School of Law, where he teaches classes on capital punishment, race and poverty. Some of his students spend a semester in Alabama to learn casework and address policy issues. “Part of our challenge is to educate people [in the community] about some of these issues and stimulate the kind of discussion that can lead to policy reform,” he says.

One of Stevenson’s major initiatives is eliminating life sentences for minors. “Most folks don’t know that the U.S. is the only country in the world where a 13-year-old can be sentenced to die in prison, or that we put some of these kids in adult prisons with the most serious offenders, or that some of these sentences are mandatory and judges have no discretion to treat a young child differently than an adult,” he says.

Since the JEHT Foundation closed its doors in January, the EJI must re-evaluate its priorities. For Stevenson, it’s not an easy task—every case is important. “People who commit crimes can’t be reduced to being nothing more than a criminal,” he says. “It is convenient to condemn, to discard and throw people away, but in my opinion that’s tragically flawed.

“You judge the character of a society by how you treat the poor, the disfavored, the incarcerated and condemned. The true reflection of a community, a state or a nation can be seen in how we deal with the hated and marginalized.”

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