Death-row attorney’s message of hope amid injustice

Attorney Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” which details his experiences representing inmates on death row.

At one point during Bryan Stevenson’s lecture on injustice and mass incarceration in America, the young man in his 20s seated next to me in the crowded auditorium quietly wiped tears from his face, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

I didn’t care who saw me doing the same.

Stevenson, attorney and author of “Just Mercy,” the best-selling book about his work representing death-row inmates, appeared in Syracuse, NY, last week to close out the 22nd annual Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series sponsored by the Friends of the Onondaga County Library.

At the start, Stevenson noted that he wanted to talk about solutions, not problems.

This, from an African-American man who has done the difficult work of trying — and sometimes failing — to convince judges to not execute men who may not be responsible for the crimes they’ve been imprisoned for, sometimes for decades. Stevenson has suffered indignities of his own, including getting strip-searched at a prison before he could meet with his client.

Yet, he remains positive and keeps on fighting for justice. In his talk, he outlined his four-point approach, solutions to at least some of the problems that abound in the justice system in America — the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

Be proximate. “Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer,” Stevenson said. In other words, don’t avoid those who are living in poverty and amid violence. “Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression,” he said. Try to know people as individuals, and the context in which they live. “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth,” Stevenson said. “The opposite of poverty is justice.”

Change the narratives. “To be free, we have to commit ourselves to truth and reconciliation,” Stevenson said. So much of America follows false narratives about racism. A prevailing view of African-American history is a “three-day carnival,” he said. Day One, Rosa Parks doesn’t give up her seat on the bus. Day Two, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leads a march from Selma to Montgomery. Day Three, racism is abolished. Not so.

We need to continue to talk about injustice and racism, past and present. Discrimination. Beatings. Lynchings. Not too long ago, there were “whites only” and “colored only” hotels, restaurants, water fountains. To his parents, Stevenson said, “Those weren’t directions. Those were assaults.”

Stay hopeful. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” Stevenson said. “Hope is what you need to have to be proximate.” This is where his strip-search comes in. A prison guard who greeted Stevenson made it clear that he was the owner of the truck parked outside that bore 10 Confederate flags and racist stickers such as, “If I’d known it was going to be like this, I’d have picked my own damn cotton.” Believe it or not, that anecdote takes a hopeful turn. Read “Just Mercy” to find out.

Be willing to do uncomfortable things. Stevenson called this “the hard one,” noting that change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things.” Stevenson knows this very well, and it doesn’t always succeed. He told of the time he had to call a mentally disabled client to tell him his appeal failed, and that he would be executed. The client sobbed and thanked Stevenson for trying.

Here, Stevenson asked, “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

He told of how he asked himself why he continues to do this incredibly difficult work. “My answer shocked me,” Stevenson said. “I realized I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”

Yes, if you devote yourself to this kind of work, Stevenson said, “It will break you. But it is in brokenness that we come to embrace others and feel connected.”

I urge you to visit Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative website and to read “Just Mercy.” It will change the way you look at the justice system in our country. It may even inspire you to do uncomfortable things.


  1. Thank you for this Jim. I am on my way to buy a copy of Just Mercy. You stirred my heart and spirit this morning. Working in the homeless sector, being proximate is vital. 20+% of those experiencing homelessness in our city are Aboriginal — yet they only represent 3% of the total population. At a dinner party the other night, a man, the CEO of a billion dollar corporation, said he knew what we needed to do to fix the ‘problems’ and went on to espouse his views. I asked what he would say to a consultant if they walked into his company and told him he could fix the problems, without ever having met with the CEO, read their business plan, financials etc. He said he’d laugh him out of the room. So why is it okay to do the same thing with homelessness and the crisis within the Aboriginal community — crisis which we have contributed to and created through our policies, beliefs, attitudes, discrimination… He actually acknowledged I might have a point… 🙂


    1. Thank you, Louise, and that’s a wonderful action you took with the CEO. It’s not always hatred and racism that are the cause of problems, it’s sometimes just a lack of information or experience, as it appears it was in this man’s case. I am so happy to hear that he listened to you. And if you ever get a chance to hear Mr. Stevenson speak, do so! Peace. Jim


  2. Thanks for writing about this individual, Jim. My husband and daughter–both members of the Syracuse legal community–said Bryan Stevenson was the best speaker they had ever heard. The message is one that I only wish all Americans would espouse so we could live in harmony. My only other wish–do you think we could nominate him for the presidency?


    1. Thanks, Stephanie … yes, he was an incredible speaker. One audience member stood up and asked when we will be able to call him “Justice Stevenson,” as in Supreme Court Justice. That drew some serious applause. And he has such class, he didn’t take a shot at the current administration, but rather joked that he’s likely under serious consideration by the current president.


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