Why Stephen Bright makes sure no one stands alone
Published in 2009 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 18, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
The Louisiana prosecutor kept a toy electric chair on his desk, onto which, as a dark joke, he pasted pictures of the men he sent to death row. He planned on pasting a picture of Allen Snyder on it, too.
Snyder was an African American who, in 1996, had been accused of seriously injuring his estranged wife and murdering her boyfriend. After a two-day trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death. The prosecutor had his picture.
In December 2007, Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, argued Snyder’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He charged that the Louisiana prosecutor improperly excluded African Americans from the jury. During pretrial the prosecution had struck every potential African American from the jury pool—including a young man studying to become a schoolteacher. “They said [the student] was so concerned about his studies he would not concentrate on the trial,” says Bright, adding that a white juror with a sick wife was allowed to remain on the jury.
Three months later the Supreme Court agreed with Bright, 7-2, and overturned Snyder’s conviction and death sentence. The ruling meant more than a new trial for Snyder. According to Bright, it sent a message to trial courts nationwide: “The courts are not legitimate when a whole segment of the community is excluded,” he says.
For the bulk of his career, Bright, 60, has represented prisoners—especially death row inmates. He’s filed lawsuits in Georgia aimed at reforming the state’s indigent defense system. In 2001, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he testified that low-income clients were often wrongfully convicted because of inadequate legal representation.
“He was doing this work from the very beginning when many people were not doing it,” observes Associate Judge Robert Morin of Washington, D.C., Superior Court. “He’s setting a standard for people to follow.”
Ask Bright about capital punishment, the issue with which he’s most often associated, and a torrent follows. The electric chair, he says, “basically cooked a person to death—so there was always smoke and burning flesh. It smelled horrible. … One of our clients, John Evans, had to be electrocuted three times before he died. They tried the first time and he was still alive. They tried the second time and he was still alive. And so they tried the third time.”
Forget, for a moment, what this does to the prisoner. Bright’s argument, about capital punishment in general, is more inclusive. “It is degrading for society to be engaged in such a primitive punishment,” he says.
He is from Danville, Ky., the son of a farmer. “Third generation,” he says of his father, “the same plot of land. He got married when he was 20 and my mother was 19, and before long they had four children and worked from sun-up until sundown. And yet, my parents were very involved in the civil rights movement in our little town.”
That was back when everything—from the barbershops to the schools—was segregated. But Danville, he says, was fortunate. His parents were part of community organizations and churches that wanted to bring about integration with “as little heartache and conflict as possible.” The small community managed to desegregate nonviolently.
Bright’s adolescence was filled with rallies for the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. At the University of Kentucky in Lexington, he initially wanted to speak truth to power as a journalist; then he noticed the role lawyers were playing in the effort to bring about social change, particularly, he says, “people like William Kunstler,” so he wound up at Kentucky’s law school. “I was going to be a poverty lawyer,” he says.
In the early 1970s, while Bright was still in school, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. “We thought that was the end of it, that there would not be a death penalty while I was practicing law,” he says. “A little after I started practicing law, the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the resumption of capital punishment. And there we have it.”
At first, Bright worked for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, a legal services program. Next, he moved to the Washington, D.C., Public Defender’s Service—an incubator for some of the nation’s top lawyers, including Charles Ogletree of Harvard and Michele Roberts, now with Akin Gump in D.C. Then in 1979 he received a call from an American Civil Liberties Union representative who wanted to know if he would petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review in a Georgia death penalty case.
“I said, ‘Why would you want me? I’m a trial lawyer,'” Bright remembers. “‘I’m in D.C. We don’t have the death penalty. I really don’t know anything about it.’ And she said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take anybody we can get.'”
Which is how Bright and two other lawyers wound up tackling the case of Donald Wayne Thomas, convicted of murdering a 9-year-old boy. “We sort of braced ourselves thinking we were going to get this huge record,” Bright remembers. “This Ryder truck is going to pull up and they are going to unload boxes and we’re going to have to go through them. The next day a FedEx package came, which was about two inches thick. And that was everything. That was the transcript of the trial, the penalty phase, the closing arguments and the sentencing phase.”
The original lawyer for Thomas, Bright concluded, showed up for the trial, asked a few questions and gave closing arguments. “And the brief,” he adds, “would not have passed a legal writing class. It probably wouldn’t have passed a high school English class.”
The evidence against Thomas, the attorneys soon realized, basically consisted of the testimony of two unreliable witnesses. “I went down to see our client. He was schizophrenic. He wasn’t oriented as to day, time or place. He couldn’t tell me anything about his trial. He was so out of touch with reality. There was nothing about that in the record of this case. So the jury that sentenced him to death had no idea that this 18-year-old African-American youth was totally out of touch with reality. And there was a very good question as to whether he was guilty of the crime,” Bright says. “We spent years, ultimately, investigating that.”
Through their efforts, the death sentence was reversed but the conviction stood. To this day, Thomas, now 48, remains incarcerated. “I am convinced that the kid who got killed was killed as part of the Atlanta child murders,” Bright says, referring to a string of murders that subsequently ended with the conviction of Wayne Williams. “This was just early in the process and [the police] didn’t know the pattern at that time.”
By the early 1980s, Bright was taking other death penalty cases and was invited to join the Southern Center. Established in 1976 in response to prison conditions and the Supreme Court decision allowing the resumption of capital punishment, the Center struggled under a heavy caseload and scarce funding. “We already knew by then how urgently people needed lawyers in these cases and so ultimately three people besides me all packed up and moved to Georgia.”
Two of the lawyers that made the move to the Southern Center—Russell Canan and Robert Morin—are currently superior court judges in Washington, D.C. The third, George Kendall, moved to the Georgia ACLU and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and is now senior counsel for Holland & Knight’s community services team.
“Nobody outworks Steve in preparing for a case,” says Kendall. “Steve has a hard time separating himself from his client’s plight.” Among friends, there’s even been concern that Bright would “work himself to death on these death cases,” Kendall adds.
Indeed, in 1979, while still in his 20s, Bright suffered a “cardiac incident.” There was another close call last year. Friends universally echo concern about his health but Bright dismisses his health issues as attributable to genetics, not workload.
In the next breath he allows that work takes its toll. “I remember one time I had planned to take what I thought was an urgently needed vacation,” he says, “and the governor of Florida signed a death warrant on some guy that didn’t have a lawyer. I had three weeks blocked out, and I spent the three weeks representing this guy, racing from court to court.”
He can point to victories: William Anthony Brooks and Thomas and Snyder all removed from death row. Lawyers he led at the Center helped with the 2001 exoneration of Gary Drinkard, who had been imprisoned for seven years for a murder he did not commit.
Bright has also witnessed six executions. Two—J.C. Shaw in South Carolina and James David Raulerson in Florida—occurred within two weeks of each other in January 1985. He sees his attendance as a matter of responsibility. “The idea of criminal law is that you don’t want people to stand alone. Any time in the process, when they are in court, there has got to be somebody there for them,” he says.
During the execution of Raulerson, who was convicted of killing a police officer, Bright was the only person in the room on Raulerson’s side. “All the other people were police officers and the father of the officer that got killed. … It was important for [Raulerson] that I was there and that he could look out and see me before they put him to death.”
There’s usually a religious figure in the room as well. Parents or family members of the executed have shown up, but, Bright says, “I’d strongly advise against that. Particularly in the days of the electric chair.” (Most states have used lethal injection since the 1990s.)
Afterwards, Bright tries to console family members, as he did with Raulerson’s mother, assuring her … Bright searches for the words. “I guess it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I guess that’s what you say. You couldn’t say they died with dignity. With the electric chair, particularly, the issue is: Did they catch on fire? Did it go on for a long time?”
As for how the executions affected him personally? “I’m sorry, but this is not something that I feel I can put into words satisfactorily,” he says.
In Proximity to Death, a 2000 book about Bright and the Southern Center, Pulitzer prize-winning historian William S. McFeely describes Bright in the courtroom:
He rose, walked over to the jury box and fixing his eye on each of these residents of Morgan County in turn, said, “We get down now to the ultimate issue here. Do we kill William Brooks?”
“Kill” is the word and “we” are the killers. Bright had not constructed a universal “we,” so broad as to encompass everyone—and no one. Rhetorically, he made himself party to the process, but his point was that the twelve to whom he spoke were that “we.”
Eight years ago, not long after Lisa Kung, the Southern Center’s current director, arrived at the Center, she and another lawyer tackled a class action prison lawsuit in Alabama. They decided they needed firepower for an emergency hearing before a federal judge. Bright was that firepower.
“Steve drove with us [to the hearing],” she says. “He sat in the back seat of the car. In four hours, he read all the pleadings, read all the memos, got up-to-speed and took over the courtroom the next morning. He framed the entire litigation within his first 30 minutes.”
He is also known for lawsuits relentlessly hammering Georgia’s public defender system. “We had 159 counties, and each county had its own system. So it was totally fragmented,” Bright remembers. “The only thing that the systems had in common was that they were all terrible.”
By 2003, legislation established a statewide public defender system. The state kicked in $40 million. More is needed, Kung says. But she attributes the progress to Bright’s efforts. “To be able to leverage lawsuits into systemic change is something that doesn’t come around very often,” Kung says. “Steve did it not just by bringing these lawsuits; he did it by the example of his life’s work.”
Three years ago, after 23 years, Bright stepped down as director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. He’d juggled many things—being a lawyer and director of the Center and teaching law school—but he knew: “I can’t be director forever. It’s important that organizations grow and develop leadership.”
A year later, Bright went into cardiac arrest and almost died; he now has a defibrillator implanted in his heart. He and his partner, Charlotta Norby, a former lawyer and administrator at the Center who is now retired, moved to a farm in Kentucky last July—next to the farm where Bright grew up. The part of him that is the son of a farmer returned to his roots. At this point in the conversation, it seems as though Bright will say he’ll take it easy from here on in.
But the other part of Bright, the lawyer, takes over. His senior counsel position at the Center simply allowed for expansion. “It gave me more time for litigation and the right to counsel issues that I was interested in, as well as the death penalty cases,” he says. “I’ve been representing people at the Fulton County Jail for 10 years, I guess, dealing with all the problems of the jail—from overcrowding and medical care, staffing, all those issues. And the indigent defense cases. So my practice has been a broader practice in the last few years than when I first went down and was dealing almost exclusively with death penalty cases.”
When he first went down, in 1979, he was taking the road less traveled. That road now leads him to Yale every spring, where he encourages future lawyers to forgo the battle for high-paying jobs. “Take the jobs where the need is really great,” he says. “Why compete and be disappointed because you didn’t get a job when there are positions out there where people really need help and you can help them?”