Most often this feature focuses on ordinary people doing little things to help others and to make the world a bit better place. Today, however, I wish to focus on a very big thing, a big man and his organization, Mr. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). A friend & reader, Ellen, pointed me to this organization and thought I might be interested. I was absolutely fascinated, and I hope you will be too. Thank you, Ellen … I owe you one!
Bryan Stevenson grew up in the shadow of segregation and racism in school, on playgrounds and at the local swimming pool. After graduating from Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, he received a full scholarship to Harvard Law School. It was during his tenure there that he found what would become his life’s work. As part of a class on race and poverty litigation, he worked for Stephen Bright’s Southern Center for Human Rights. It represents death-row inmates throughout the South. Stevenson knew immediately that he had found his career calling.
After graduating from Harvard in 1985, Stevenson moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and joined the Southern Center for Human Rights full-time. The center divided work by region and Stevenson was assigned to Alabama. In 1989 he was appointed to run the Alabama operation, a resource center and death-penalty defense organization that was funded by Congress. He had a center in Montgomery, the state capital. Then, in 1994, the republicans gained a majority in Congress and one of their first moves was to eliminate funding for death-penalty defense for lower income people.
Not one to accept defeat, Stevenson converted the center and founded the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship Grant, 100% of which he put toward supporting the goals of EJI. He guaranteed a defense of anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty, as it was the only state that did not provide legal assistance to people on death row. Alabama also has the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing.
In 2005, Stevenson was instrumental in convincing the Supreme Court to consider the death penalty to be unconstitutional for persons convicted of crimes committed under the age of 18 in the case of Roper v Simmons.
Now a bit about EJI. Their mission statement on their website:
“The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
In 2015, EJI won the exoneration and release of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row after being wrongfully convicted of capital murder based on a faulty bullet match, and Beniah Dandridge, who spent 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted based on a faulty fingerprint match. EJI won the release of Diane Tucker, an intellectually disabled woman wrongfully convicted of murdering an infant, after obtaining medical evidence that proved the baby never existed.
There are many stories on their website of people whose lives have been saved by EJI … far too many for me to relate here. As of 2016, EJI had saved 125 people from the death penalty. In addition, it has represented poor people, defended people on appeal and overturned wrongful convictions, and worked to alleviate bias in the criminal justice system. Let’s take a look at one of the cases EJI took on …
Trina Garnett, a 14-year-old mentally disabled girl, was charged with second-degree murder after setting a fire that tragically killed two people in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was tried in adult court and sentenced to die in prison.
Trina was homeless and had suffered severe abuse, trauma, and mental illness. Her trial judge had no choice but to impose a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole, although he remarked “it is a deplorable situation that the state does not provide facilities where young people such as Ms. Garnett can receive help while learning in a secure environment.”
EJI took on Trina’s case as part of its work challenging life-without-parole sentences imposed on young teens. In 2012, EJI won a landmark ruling from the United States Supreme Court barring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children.
Bryan Stevenson, now age 58, has dedicated his life to helping people. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief or release for over 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. Mr. Stevenson has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge the legacy of racial inequality in America, including major projects to educate communities about slavery, lynching and racial segregation.
Mr. Stevenson has won so many awards that I cannot name them all, but they include:
- The National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union after he was nominated by United States Supreme Court Justice John Stevens
- The Olaf Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden for international human rights
- The SALT Human Rights Award
- The NAACP William Robert Ming Advocacy Award
- The Roosevelt Institute Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom from Fear Award
Charity Navigator, an organization that rates non-profits based on accountability and transparency has ranked EJI 100% in all areas for the last 3 years, and they have had a four-star rating (the highest possible) since 2012.
The accomplishments of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative are so many that it would take me a dozen or more posts to highlight them all, but I urge you to take a tour of their website, read some of the stories, explore the sections on ‘Racial justice’, ‘Children in prison’, and more.
Mr. Bryan Stevenson is a man with a heart, a man with a fighting spirit who spends every day of his life helping the people who most need help. In this country, the poor and minorities are not treated as equals, are not valued by society. Mr. Stevenson is working to change that, one life at a time.