Important Criminal Justice Work Continued by Equal Justice Initiative

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based in Montgomery, Alabama, 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.

This work continued in 2016.

It “won relief for nearly a dozen condemned prisoners on death row facing execution.” It “won reduced sentences for more than a dozen people who were sentenced die in prison when they were children” and it “continues to represent scores of other condemned juveniles.” It has “fought against horrific prison conditions and abuse within jails and prisons” and is “challenging the extreme sentences that continue to be imposed on low-level offenders and people who are not a threat to public safety,” In 2016 it “won the release of more than a dozen people who were unfairly sentenced or convicted” and is “continuing [its] work to reform the criminal justice system.”

EJI also has education and activism projects “to challenge America’s history of racial inequality.” As discussed in an earlier post, EJI has announced plans for a national memorial for victims of lynching and a museum on racial injustice.

More details on these important accomplishments are provided in EJI’s Annual Report 2016, which I received in last week’s mail, but which apparently is not yet available on EJI’s website.

EJI’s Executive Director is Bryan Stevenson, a powerful and dedicated lawyer, author and speaker, who meets the challenge that President Obama made to Howard University graduates last May.

I urge all citizens who are interested in criminal justice reform to support EJI with your charitable donations. This is even more important now when, according to a New York Times report, President-Elect Donald Trump has made comments about private prisons working better than government-operated prisons and detention facilities resulting in huge increases in the stock prices of the corporations that own and operate the former.

 

 

 

Honoring Victims of Racial Lynchings and Injustice 

On August 16 the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery Alabama announced plans for two projects honoring victims of U.S. racial lynchings and injustice.[1]

One is the Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the over 4,000 black victims of lynchings that will sit on six acres, the highest spot in Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. The memorial will be a large, four-sided gallery of 801 six-foot columns hanging in the air as if from trees like a lynching. Each column will represent a U.S. county where a lynching took place and be etched with the name(s) of the person(s) lynched. Here is a rendering of the memorial and a map showing the locations of the lynchings.

national-lynching-memorial-2

map-of-73-years-of-lynching-1423543271115-master495

An adjacent field will have duplicates of those columns, which will be offered as a challenge to be moved to the home counties of the lynchings; those that remain will be silent rebukes to the places that refuse to acknowledge their history of lynching.

The other project is a museum, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” which is scheduled to open completely next April in EJI’s 11,000-square-foot headquarters in Montgomery. Tracing the country’s racial history from slavery to the era of mass incarceration, it will contain high-tech exhibits, artifacts, recordings, and films, as well as a comprehensive database and information on lynching and racial segregation. Its virtual reality stations will enable people to understand what it was like to be in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship, to endure angry taunts during a lunch counter sit-in and to sit in a contemporary overcrowded prison. Below are photographs of one part of the museum and of jars of dirt from sites of lynchings.

 

from-enslavement-to-mass-incarceration

 

jars of dirt

As reported by Montgomery’s newspaper, the founder and Executive Director of EJI, Bryan Stevenson, said, “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

StevesnsonStevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer. (To the right is a photograph of Stevenson and the cover of his highly acclaimed book, Just Mercy.) His work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has won him numerous awards including the ABA Wisdom Award for Public Service, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award Prize, the Olaf Palme International Prize, the ACLU National Medal Of Liberty, the National Public Interest Lawyer of the Year Award, the Gruber Prize for International Justice and the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, has been awarded 16 honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.[2]

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[1] EJI, EJI Announces Plans To Build Museum and National Lynching Memorial (Aug. 16, 2016); Robertson, Memorial in Alabama Will Honor Victims of Lynchings, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2016); Troyan, National memorial to lynching victims to be built in Montgomery, Montgomery Advertiser (Aug. 16, 2016); Edgemon, Nation’s first memorial to lynching victims set for Montgomery, al.com (Aug. 16, 2016); Toobin, Justice Delayed, New Yorker (Aug. 22, 2016).

[2] There is a lot about Stevenson in the previously cited New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin and in two previous blog posts: Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 19, 2016); Evaluating Bryan Stevenson Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard University Speech, dwkcommentaries.com (May 4, 2016).

Evaluating Bryan Stevenson Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard University Speech

President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. The key points in Obama’s speech for this evaluation are the following:

  • “Be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.”
  • African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
  • “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”
Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Bryan Stevenson through the prism of that speech.

Although not a Howard alumnus, Stevenson, as discussed in another post, is an African-American attorney, author and activist for social justice, especially for today’s African-American men and women and for their ancestors who were enslaved and persecuted. He has successfully argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts for prison inmates and written and spoken for changes in our criminal justice system. In addition, he has organized and established the Equal Justice Initiative (CJI), a significant human rights/civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama that is being joined by  a museum honoring the victims of slavery and lynchings.[1]

In so doing, Stevenson is demonstrating confidence in his own heritage, his own blackness, as President Obama urged the graduates. Stevenson also shows his awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle that he combines with a strategy of change through the courts and public opinion. He meets the standards set forth by President Obama.

Give thanks to God for this good man!

 

 

 

 

Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” and his 2014 article, ”The Case for Reparations,” continue to draw attention and criticism. This blog already has criticized both the book and the article.[1] Here are additional reflections on these writings.

“Between the World and Me”

In November 2015 the New York Times named the book as one of the 50 notable nonfiction books of 2015. A week later the editors of the Times Book Review proclaimed that it was one of the 10 best books of the year with these words: “Structured as a letter to his teenage son, this slender, urgent volume — a searching exploration of what it is to grow up black in a country built on slave labor and ‘the destruction of black bodies’ — rejects fanciful abstractions in favor of the irreducible and particular. Coates writes to his son with a clear eyed realism about the beautiful and terrible struggle that inheres in flesh and bone.”[2]

Also in November the book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for 2015. The citation stated the book is “a brutally honest portrayal of the plight of the African-American male in this country. Composed as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with chilling bleakness and precision about racism in America. This is no simple account of racism, but rather a concise attack on a system which has consistently rendered black lives worthless. Incorporating history and personal memoir, Coates has succeeded in creating an essential text for any thinking American today.”[3]

Coates dedicated this award to the memory of his friend, Prince Carmen Jones, a young black man who was killed by a policeman, saying, “I have waited 15 years for this moment. I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that [policeman]. I can’t secure the safety of my son. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is say, “You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it. We are not enrolled in a lie. We are not part of it.'”

In January 2016 the National Book Critics Circle made the book one of five nominees for its 2015 award for criticism. The actual awards will be announced on March 17, 2016. [4]

Jonathan Orbell, a self-described white evangelical Christian and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, says the book “offers white evangelicals yet another opportunity to reflect on issues that have gone unaddressed in our congregations for far too long. . . black Americans’ subjugation to a regime of brutal and systematic racial injustice. “[5]

Not all comments about the book were laudatory. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review and columnist, called the book “profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered.” Coates “has to reduce people to categories and actors in a pantomime of racial plunder to support his worldview. He must erase distinctions and reject complexity.” In his view, Coates “gives the impression of denying the moral agency of blacks, who are often portrayed as the products of forces beyond their control.” The book “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair and the call for perpetual struggle.”[6]

Another pointed criticism of Coates was leveled by a columnist for the New York Post, Kyle Smith, who accused Coates of “harboring . . . suspicion, fear, mistrust, distaste, and unease about [all] whites.” Yet “Coates has found himself crowned America’s leading civic thinker.”[7] Coates himself is baffled by this positive reaction by many white readers. He said, “I don’t know why white people read what I write. I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.” Indeed, he said he did not want “the burden [of explaining the ills of black people to white people]—it alienated him. And so he writes with a tone that is blunt, authoritative and unapologetic” while harboring “no malice toward white people, and that he speaks to them from the heart.” [8]

An African-American writer living in Paris, Thomas Chatterton Williams, says Coates left out “an essential part of the story of black life today – the only black life I have ever known. . . . The capacity of humans to amount to more than the sum of a set of circumstances is ignored. The capacity to find gratification in making a choice – even if it’s the wrong one – is glossed over.” Williams concludes, “The crisis of the black intellectual now, if there is one, isn’t that he lacks the means or the platform to represent his people but that it is too easy to cleave to a sense of resentment and indignation – even now that he has found himself, after all these years and all this struggle, in a position of strength.”[9]

Coates has said that the book is a “complete rejection” of the notion that the   current plight of blacks in the U.S. “is not really tied to our long history . . . of policy directed toward African-Americans .. . [and that it] is our fault, or partly our fault. . . .[It] may well be our responsibility, but it certainly is not our fault.” The book, he said, reflects his “process of getting conscious . . . [which] was a very, very uncomfortable, disturbing and sometimes physically painful process.” Yet “black experience is big and it’s nuanced and it’s broad, and no one person should be the spokesperson for that experience, or no one person should be the oracle or be the articulator.”[10]

Darryl Pinckney, an African-American novelist, playwright and essayist, places Coates’ book into a broader perspective. Pinckney asserts, “The black struggle in the US has a dualist tradition. It expresses opposing visions of the social destiny of black people. Up, down, all or nothing, in or out, acceptance or repudiation.” According to Pinckney, Coates believes “it’s too late [for an end to America’s racial nightmare], given the larger picture. He speculates that now that the American Dreamers are plundering “not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself,” “something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.” Coates in this book refuses “to expect anything anymore, socially or politically. Coates is . . . fed up, but his disillusionment is a provocation: it’s all your fault, Whitey. This is a rhetorical strategy of the [black writer’s] tradition but to address an audience beyond black people is to be still attempting to communicate and enlighten.”[11]

“The Case for Reparations”[12]

My earlier post argued this Coates-article was not well written; that he hid in generalizations; that his discussion of black contract-for-deed discrimination was sloppy and perhaps erroneous; that he mentioned certain scholarly discussions of how reparations might be implemented without endorsing any of them; that he failed to mention U.S. presidential l and congressional statements about reparations as well as other countries’ approaches to reparations; and that his grand conclusion was the mere urging adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by its author, Rep. John Conyers (Dem, MI).[13]

Immediately after the release of Coates’ article, David Frum, a neoconservative commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, pointed out that Coates “disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work?” In addition, Frum asserts, “Coates’s essay is built on an unstated assumption that America’s racial composition is essentially binary, a white majority that inflicts inequality; a black minority that suffers inequality.” Coates thereby ignores the probability of groups other than blacks’ making similar claims for reparations and of the many financial and political problems that would create.[14]

“Another huge problem with any reparations program [for Frum] would be who qualifies.” For example, would a mixed-race individual qualify? A new immigrant from Africa? And so on. In addition, any program would create side effects, anticipated and unanticipated.

The next day, Coates responded to Frum’s criticism by arguing that reparations for African-Americans would not expand to other groups because the actual reparations for Japanese-Americans who had been interred in World War II did not expand to other groups. Coates concludes his response with these words:

  • “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history. . . . In other times banishment has been our priority. The mature citizen, the hard student, is now called to choose between finding a reason to confront the past, or finding more reasons to hide from it. [Frum] thinks [the congressional bill to create a study commission] … commits us to a solution. He is correct. The solution is to study. I submit his own article as proof of why such study is so deeply needed.”[15]

Rich Lowry in his previously mentioned article also has harsh words for Coates’ opinion on reparations. Lowry asks the rhetorical question of whether any recipient of “a modest, roughly $1 trillion program of reparations, which would be more than $20,000 for every black person in the country, regardless of his or her family’s personal history or current financial circumstances” would be transformed. Lowry’s answer to this question is a resounding “No.” Instead, Lowery says, “For poor blacks to escape poverty, it would still require all the personal attributes that contribute to success. So Coates is selling snake oil. Even if he got his fantastical reparations that he has poured such literary energy into advocating, real improvement in the condition of black people would still require the moral effort that he won’t advocate for.”

Coates responded to these criticisms by meekly saying he was offering a “case” for reparations, not a “plan” for such a program and that he had mentioned–without endorsement–several plans proposed by academics. Now he points to what he calls an “excellent paper” on the subject by Sandy Darity, a Duke economist and “tireless reparations proponent.” [16]

Last month the issue of reparations resurfaced with Bernie Sanders’ comment that he did not favor reparations for slavery because there was a nil chance of congressional approval and because it would be “very divisive.” [17]

Coates responded by saying that all of Sanders’ own proposals for economic and financial reform had a nil chance of congressional approval. Moreover, “[o]ne of the great functions of radical candidates [like Sanders] is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.”

Conclusion

I do not find Coates’ responses to these criticisms convincing. I still am uninspired with his writings and arguments. I do not think his many awards are justified.

In contrast, I applaud the amazing work for social and racial justice being waged by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American attorney and advocate. As discussed in an earlier post, Stevenson has obtained release from prison and death row for African-Americans who had been unjustly convicted. He also is creating various ways to remember and honor victims of lynchings and other crimes and to inspire others to join the effort for social and racial justice.

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[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” (Aug. 13, 2015); Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015).

[2] 100 Notable Books of 2015, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Nov. 27, 2015); The 10 Best Books of the Year, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Dec. 3, 2015.

[3] Nat’l Book Foundation, 2015 National Book Award Nonfiction; Alter, Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2015); Dwyer, Adam Johnson, Ta-Nehisi Coates Win National Book Awards, NPR (Nov. 19, 2015).

[4] National Book Critics Circle, National Book Critics Circle Announces Its Finalists for Publishing Year 2015 (Jan. 18, 2016); Manly, National Book Critics Circle Announces Award Nominees, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2016).

[5] Orbell, Why Christians Need Coates, Sojourners (July 29, 2015).

[6] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015).

[7] Smith, The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Commentary (Oct. 1, 2015),

[8] Coates, Ta-Nahisi Coates On Why Whites Like His Writing, Daily Beast (Oct. 25, 2015).

[9] Williams, Loaded Dice, London Rev. of Books (Dec. 3, 2015).

[10] Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[11] Pinckney, The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Rev. of Books (Feb. 11, 2016).

[12] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015); Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates on His Work and the Painful Process of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[13] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015). Kevin Drum, a liberal American blogger and columnist, was similarly unimpressed with Coates’ mere calling for a study of the issue of reparations. Drum, Should Bernie Sanders Support Reparations? Mother Jones (Jan. 19, 2016).

[14] Frum, The Impossibility of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 3, 2014).

[15] Coates, The Radical Practicality of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 4, 2014).

[16] Coates, The Case for Considering Reparations, The Atlantic (Jan. 27, 2016).

[17] Coates, Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? The Atlantic (Jan. 19, 2016).

 

 

 

University Students Investigate Jim Crow-Era Killings

Students at Atlanta’s Emory University are investigating Jim Crow-era murders of blacks in Georgia. They then publish their results online. This is the focus of Emory’s “The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.” Similar projects exist at least three other universities. Important federal legislation and actions by the U.S. Department of Justice provide important background for such efforts. These subjects will be explored in this post.

Emory’s Project[1]

The Project was started in 2011 as an interdisciplinary Civil Rights Cold Cases class examining incidents that occurred in Georgia. In January 2015, it launched a website, coldcases.emory.edu, that is the joint product of more than fifty students’ work during seven semesters of the course.

The Emory class is taught by Hank Klibanoff, the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, and by Brett Gadsden, Associate Professor of African American Studies.

Professor Gadsden said the class is run like “a research seminar, with intense focus on individuals’ lives and attention to the historical context in which these folks lived. These stories come alive for students. They aren’t just presenting cases or telling the stories of lowly black victims. They are really trying to understand what happened, what the circumstances were, what happened to the people, how they lived, how they died, who killed them, and why, but understanding these victims’ deaths as a part of the historical record.”

The students prepare both a ten-page academic paper on their topic of choice and a condensed article for publication on the website. Gadsden emphasizes that the students are “writing for the professors, for each other, and also for a public of both academics and non-academics. They are accountable to the descendants of the lost, and that comes with a special responsibility—one that the students embrace.”

The recent Wall Street Journal article about Emory’s project tells the moving story of the students’ investigation of the September 8, 1948, killing by two white men of Isaiah Nixon, a black man who had voted that same day in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary election. One of the white men was charged with murder, but was acquitted in a one-day trial by an all-white jury. Afterwards the accessory-to-murder charge against the other white man was dropped. The Emory students’ investigation led them to conclude that Nixon had been murdered because he had voted in that primary election.

The students also discovered Nixon’s grave in a Georgia cemetery and invited his daughter, Dorothy Nixon Williams, who at age 6 had witnessed the murder of her father, to visit the grave last week with them and her son. Now 73 years old, Dorothy said when seeing the grave, “Lord have mercy,” sobbing into her son’s shoulder. Professor Klibanoff commented, “Isaiah Nixon matters; his life matters and his death and disappearance from history matter. What matters more is his reappearance now and I think that is miraculous.” At the conclusion of the visit, Dorothy said her anger over her father’s murder “now is completely released.”

Other Similar Projects

Similar projects are being conducted by Northeastern University School of Law, Syracuse University College of Law and Louisiana State University.

Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project investigates “the role of state, local and federal law enforcement agencies and courts in protecting activists and their work. [The Project] examines the geo-politics that led to the large-scale breakdown of law enforcement, the wide-spread repression against the movement’s participants, and the reforms that have been initiated to rectify these abuses. The project engages teachers and students across the university and is directed by faculty from the School of Law and the College of Criminal Justice.” [2]

Syracuse’s Cold Case Justice Initiative was established in 2007 by Syracuse law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald to investigate “racially motivated murders that occurred during the Civil Rights era and [to advocate] on behalf of the victims and their families to get justice for the crimes. The program works with law students to conduct research, identify victims and find new information that could assist law enforcement in resolving cases. The Initiative as of has identified [nearly 200] cases from the civil rights era they believe warranted further investigation by federal authorities.”[3]

Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication started its Cold Case Project in 2010 to investigate Civil Rights-era hate murders in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Since then nearly three-dozen students, comprised mainly of seniors and graduate students, have worked on such cases. Their “primary focus is to bring closure to African-American communities which have lingered decades without fully knowing what federal agents learned about the deaths of family members and friends.” Jay Shelledy, who is in charge of the Project, said FBI agents at the time did their best to solve these vicious killings, but were thwarted by intimidated witnesses, Klan-sympathizing local lawmen and white juries which refused to convict whites of murdering blacks.[4]

In February 2015 the LSU Project launched a searchable website detailing heretofore sealed FBI investigative findings in a dozen such murders. It contains more than 150,000 pages of FBI findings, resulting stories, photographs and letters from the U.S. Department of Justice to the victims’ next of kin. Many thousands of additional pages of FBI case files are pending release under FOIA requests; when released, they will be added to the digital database.

Background for These Projects

These projects have been stimulated and assisted by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 2006, the Department began its Cold Case Initiative—a comprehensive program to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago. The effort was reinforced in 2008 with the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that authorized the Department to investigate unsolved civil rights murders before 1970. This statute had been introduced in 2007 by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and unanimously passed by both houses of Congress in 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush.[5]

As of May 2015, the Department reported to Congress that it had concluded 105 of 113 relevant cold cases involving 126 victims, but that “very few prosecutions have resulted from these exhaustive efforts.” (The single case that went to court involved Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler after a civil rights protest in 1965. In 2010, at age 77, Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in prison.)[6]

This was due, said the report, for many reasons. Federal statutory law limits the Department’s ability to prosecute civil-rights era cases at the federal level. There is a five-year statute of limitations on federal criminal civil-rights charges that existed prior to 1994. The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy, which prevents the re-trial of someone for an offense for which he or she was previously found not guilty. In addition, cold cases can be difficult to prosecute because “subjects die, witnesses die or can no longer be located, memories become clouded, evidence is destroyed or cannot be located.”

This statute is due to expire in 2017, and efforts are being made to lobby for its extension.

Conclusion

These projects are significant and inspiring. First, they complement and should be coordinated with the amazing justice advocacy of Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative that was discussed in a prior post. Second, these projects are excellent examples of a mode of teaching an important subject that should be included in this blogger’s reflections on modes of teaching and learning as set forth in another earlier post.

We all should give thanks to Emory, Northeastern, Syracuse and Louisiana State University for their leadership in this important work.

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[1] McWhirter, College Class Investigates Jim Crow-Era Killings, W.S. J. (Jan. 24, 2016),; Lameiras, Cold Cases Project helps student uncover history of civil rights era crimes, Emory Mag. (May 25, 2015); Emory Libraries, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases; Justice, Emory student research debuts on Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases website (Jan. 7, 2015); Emory Univ., Special Topics Seminar: Cold Cases (description of seminar and tentative list of readings).

[2] Northeastern Univ. School of Law, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. An earlier version of this post erroneously included Northwestern University College of Law’s important Wrongful Conviction Center, and I thank Professor Hank Klibanoff for pointing out this error.

[3] Joiner, Inside the Effort to Solve Civil Rights Crimes Before It’s Too Late, Time (Oct. 15, 2015).

[4] LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project; Lemoine, Cold Case, LSU Gold (Fall 2011); LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project website released (Feb. 25, 2015).

[5] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Cold Case Initiative.

[6] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General’s Sixth Annual Report to Congress Pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 (May 2015).

U.S. Supreme Court Extends Parole Rights for Juveniles Convicted of Murder             

On January 25, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, 6-3, that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama banning life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively.[1]

Important for the Court was its conclusion that the earlier decision had been grounded on the diminished culpability of all juvenile offenders, who are, the Court said, immature, susceptible to peer pressure and capable of change. Very few, the opinion said, are incorrigible. But as a general matter the punishment was out of bounds. As a result, a court, upon petition by such a prisoner, must hold a re-sentencing hearing in order to give the petitioner “the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” Alternatively the state could make them eligible for parole without a hearing

Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in the instant case, was 17 when he committed the murder and now is 69 in a Louisiana prison. The Court’s opinion said there was evidence that he deserved to be released, describing “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community” and noting that he was a coach on the prison boxing team, had worked in the prison’s silk-screen program and had offered advice to younger inmates.

The opinion for the Court was written by Mr. Justice Anthony Kennedy and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Dissenting were Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito.

Bryan Stevenson was the successful attorney for the petitioner in the 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, which is discussed in Chapter Fourteen of his book, Just Mercy.[2] Although he was not the attorney for the petitioner, Montgomery, in the case decided today, Stevenson did submit an amicus curiae brief supporting Montgomery on behalf of the Equal Justice Initiative on Behalf of Dozens Sentenced to Die in Prison When They Were Children.

New York Times editorial applauded the latest decision with these words: “The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly over the last decade that it is morally and constitutionally wrong to equate offenses committed by emotionally undeveloped adolescents with crimes carried out by adults. It made this point again [in the Montgomery case]when it ruled that people who were sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole as juveniles have the right to seek parole.” The Times concluded by recommending that the Court “should take the final step. That means outlawing life sentences without parole for children altogether, whether mandatory or not.”

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[1] Opinions, Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016); U.S. Sup. Ct. Docket, Montgomery v. Louisiana (No. 14-280); Liptak, Justices Expand Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life for Murder, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2016)

[2] Docket, Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646 (U.S. Sup. Ct.); Opinions, Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646 (June 25, 2012),  A prior post reviewed the amazing advocacy for justice by Bryan Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice      

 

Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson

Now based in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson is conducting amazing advocacy for racial justice in many different ways: as an attorney for individuals who have been victimized by the U.S. criminal justice system; as the founder of a non-profit human rights organization (the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)) devoted to those causes; as an author and speaker; and as the creator of various ways to honor his predecessors who strove for justice and the victims of injustice. Let us review these ways in which Stevenson demonstrates his advocacy after looking at his biography.

Stevenson’s Biography

 He was born in 1959 in Milton, Delaware and grew up in a poor rural community. Attending a “colored school” for his early years, he graduated from a racially integrated public high school and then Eastern College (now Eastern University), a Philadelphia “Christian university dedicated to the preparation of . . . students for thoughtful and productive lives of Christian faith, leadership and service.” He then attended and obtained a J.D. degree from the Harvard Law School; and a Masters in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Stevenson is an attorney and the Founder and Executive Director of EJI, which specializes in advocacy for children in adult prisons, death-row inmates, prison and sentencing reform and combating race and poverty (. He also is a Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law.

In 1995 he received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which said that in his “drive to expose biases under which capital punishment is imposed, Stevenson has articulated how its use is linked to race and class discrimination and to systemic defects in criminal procedures.”

In 2000 Stevenson was awarded Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize. The award stated he is “a courageous representative of all the individuals, women and men from the entire world, who have maintained tirelessly that the right to life cannot be controverted, that the death penalty is an ultimate form of torture, and that the state does not have the right to kill its citizens.”

Stevenson, the Attorney

In 2015 EJI attorneys won the release of innocent people on death row or in prison for life. They also were successful in obtaining new trials for people illegally convicted and relief for those unfairly sentenced. They have documented and challenged abusive conditions of confinement in state jails and prisons. They have continued to fight against prosecution of children in adult courts and to obtain new sentences for individuals who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were children.

EJI’s work does not end when a client is released from prison. It provides them with re-entry assistance, including housing, employment, training and support. Its Post-Release Education and Preparation Program has been recognized as a model for such programs by various state officials.

Stevenson The Author

 Stevenson’s 2014 best-selling book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” provides interesting accounts of some of the significant cases in which he and EJI have been involved to provide context for a general discussion of particular problems in the American criminal justice system.

For example, Chapter Sixteen, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” opens with brief discussions of Stevenson’s 2010 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, when it decided that it was unconstitutional to impose life sentences without parole on children convicted of non-homicide crimes, and in 2012 when the Court held the same was the case when the crime was homicide. The chapter’s footnotes provide citations to these Supreme Court decisions and other mentioned cases.

Chapter Twelve, “Mother, Mother,” is another example. It recounts the trial and unjust conviction of a mother for murdering her stillborn child and sentenced to life without parole. Stevenson and EJI then entered her case and eventually obtained her release from prison. This case is then used as a platform to discuss the many problems created by incarcerating women with more details in footnotes.

The book also tells of instances in which Stevenson is touched, emotionally and spiritually, by clients who are in prison.

In the Introduction, for instance, Stevenson as a 23-year old law student was panicked and nervous when he visited a Georgia death-row inmate, who was immediately happy to learn that he would not have an execution date the next year and then gently led Stevenson into a three-hour general conversation. When the inmate was being returned to his cell, he started singing a black spiritual hymn: “I’m pressing on, the upward way. New heights I’m gaining, every day. Still praying as, I’m upward bound. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Stevenson confesses that this hymn was “a precious gift” and that the prisoner gave him “an astonishing measure of his humanity” and an altered “understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.”

This and other experiences with death-row prisoners that summer constituted “proximity to the condemned and incarcerated [that] made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful” and led to Stevenson’s being “committed to helping the death row prisoners.”

In addition, the book concludes with the “Author’s Note,” in which Stevenson seeks to recruit others to the cause of racial justice, He says, “there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.” An invitation then is extended for the reader to contact EJI for more information.

This book has received great reviews, has been a New York Times Bestseller and has won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, an NAACP Image Award and the Dayton Literary Prize for Nonfiction.

Stevenson The Speaker

A prior post mentioned Stevenson’s then forthcoming presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum. I attended this event even though I had never heard of him and thought his presentation would be a legal analysis of the changes needed in the American criminal justice system. Instead it was an emotional, passionate call for such reform and more of a sermon than a legal discussion. At the halfway point, the moderator, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, said that in his many years as the moderator of the Forum he had never heard such a moving presentation.

Nine months later I watched his televised conversation with Charlie Rose. “An Hour with Bryan Stevenson,” Charlie Rose Show (Aug. 19, 2015), when he was just as impressive. Here are some of his pithy, insightful comments:

  • “Everyone is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done.”
  • “No matter what you’ve done, your life matters or has value.”
  • “All lives matter.”
  • “All lives have equal value.”

Another example of Stevenson as a speaker is his TED Talk of March 2012,“We need to talk about an injustice.”

EJI’s Other Racial Justice Efforts

Over the last four years EJI has published major reports about the domestic slave trade, Slavery in America; and racial lynchings, Lynching in America; its third report was released in late 2015:The Anti-Civil Rights Movement. Excerpts from all of these reports are provided in EJI’s educational 2016 Calendar. For example, the month of October focuses on “Racial Terror Lynchings” with a large photograph of a crowd watching an 1893 Texas lynching and with this comment on October 5th: “1920: A mob lynches four black men in Macclenny, Florida, seizing three from the county jail and shooting the fourth dead in the woods.” EJI also has produced a film, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.[1]

In addition, EJI has erected historic markers about the domestic slave trade in its home base in Montgomery, Alabama and is working on a national memorial in the city about American racial inequality and lynchings. Its first historical marker about Lynching in America recently was erected in Brighton, Alabama pursuant to a plan to place such markers at every lynching site in the country.

EJI’s office building in Montgomery is the site of a former slave prison and close to the city’s slave market. In late 2016 it plans to convert part of its building to a museum about the history of racial inequality in America and the connections between slavery and mass incarceration. EJI also uses its building to host programs and presentations about its work and the need for reforming the criminal justice system while similar presentations are made by its staff at colleges, universities, churches, community groups, high schools and conferences.

An insight to such programs has been provided by Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, who along with 50 other faith leaders attended a two-day program at EJI in December 2015. Stevenson emphasized to this group these preconditions for reforming the American criminal justice system: (1) proximity to those most impacted by the system; (2) changing the narrative; (3) replacing hopelessness with hope; and (4) committing ourselves to uncomfortable things.[2]

These messages were made flesh by the Wallis group’s making pilgrimages to two sites where black men had been lynched, digging up dirt from those sites and placing the dirt in glass jars marked with the individuals’ names, birth and death years and the names of the lynching sites (part of EJI’s Soil Collection Project) and then holding prayer services in memory of the individuals. Another moving experience for the Sojourners group was spending time with Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton, who had spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson’s concluding message for the group: “I have always had to believe in things I haven’t seen.”

Conclusion

What an amazing human being! What amazing efforts for social justice! I give thanks to God for this amazing servant!

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[1] EJI, Annual Report 2015.

[2] Wallis, It’s Never Too Late to Do Justice, Sojourners (Dec. 17, 2015) EGI, EGI Hosts Sojourners Faith Table Retreat (Dec. 16, 2015). Willis was a speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in 2010 and will be returning on February 4, 2016 to discuss “America’s Original Sin: Racism and White Privilege,” the title of his book being published today. In a Foreward to the book, Stevenson says , “the mainstream church has been largely silent or worse“ to “our nation’s historical failure to address the legacy of racial inequality, the presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it.” Moreover, the church has been complicit in the refusal “to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation” and the emergence of “new forms of racial subordination.” Indeed, according to Stevenson, “Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality.”