Giving Young Killers a Chance at Redemption

Attorney Bryan Stevenson says history and an unfair system breed injustice for young, poor and black defendants.

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In his second year of law school, Stevenson went south—Deep South—to do practical work with a human rights group. He chose the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, now the Southern Center for Human Rights, in Atlanta, which represents people on death row. “It was really that exposure and the experience of meeting condemned people, who literally were dying for legal assistance, that radicalized my interest in the law,” Stevenson told The Root. He got a joint degree from both the law and government school, spent four years in Atlanta, and then headed to Montgomery and founded EJI in 1989. “I’ve been here ever since.”

We should all know who Stevenson is. Three months after TED, he took two cases to the Supreme Court, later joined in a single opinion. In each, a 14-year-old boy—one white, one African American—had been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole, “LWOP” in legal lingo. Stevenson argued patiently, forcefully—and ultimately successfully—that it would be cruel and unusual, and therefore in violation of the Eighth Amendment, to condemn youth under the age of 18 to mandatory life without parole. The five-to-four ruling does not ban juvenile LWOP outright. Rather, as the opinion reads, it requires that judges “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

The landmark ruling struck down laws in 29 states that imposed automatic, mandatory LWOP on juveniles. In concrete terms, a minor—a person who’s not yet fully developed cognitively—can't be condemned to rot and die in prison. We can lock him up—for 20, 40, 70 years—but because of Stevenson (and EJI), we can’t throw away the key.

The 53-year-old Stevenson is not an apologist for killing. “A lot of my clients have committed crimes, and they have to be punished for that, and I don’t have any objection to that,” he told a journalist in a 2000 PBS interview, “but there are people for whom I believe redemption is still a possibility.”

“I've learned very simple things doing the work that I do,” Stevenson said at TED. “I've come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And because of that, there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.”

It’s a radical proposition, but one with compassion and hope at its core.

Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University. 

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