– Stevenson learned about mercy from his clients. What did Stevenson believe it meant to have mercy? How did his clients teach him about mercy? What did mercy and its role in life and justice mean to Stevenson?
-Stevenson noticed how history played a role in justice. How did Stevenson see the way that history influenced the American justice system? How did history continue to influence the justice system? How did that affect the cases that Stevenson worked on?
Make sure your paper has a thesis statement in the first paragraph that addresses the questions posed in the prompt.
Use evidence from the book to support your thesis.
Be sure to fully explain how the evidence supports your thesis.
Be sure to include an introduction and conclusion.
When you quote or reference an incident from the book, then just put the page number in parenthesis at the end of the quote or reference (page number). No need to do any footnotes or works cited page since this book is to be the ONLY source you use to answer the prompt.
The following is the reference for the book:
Stevenson, B. (2014).
Just mercy: A story of justice and redemption
. One World.
Just Mercy is a work of nonfiction. Some names and identifying details have been changed.
Copyright Â© 2014 by Bryan Stevenson
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin
Random House Company, New York.
SPIEGEL & GRAU and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-8129-9453-7
Jacket design: Alex Merto
Jacket photograph: Â© Martin Barraud/Getty Images
Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.
Introduction: Higher Ground
Chapter One: Mockingbird Players
Chapter Two: Stand
Chapter Three: Trials and Tribulation
Chapter Four: The Old Rugged Cross
Chapter Five: Of the Coming of John
Chapter Six: Surely Doomed
Chapter Seven: Justice Denied
Chapter Eight: All Godâ€™s Children
Chapter Nine: Iâ€™m Here
Chapter Ten: Mitigation
Chapter Eleven: Iâ€™ll Fly Away
Chapter Twelve: Mother, Mother
Chapter Thirteen: Recovery
Chapter Fourteen: Cruel and Unusual
Chapter Fifteen: Broken
Chapter Sixteen: The Stonecatchersâ€™ Song of Sorrow
About the Author
I wasnâ€™t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old student
at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and
worried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prison
â€”and had certainly never been to death row. When I learned that I would be visiting this
prisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show.
Georgiaâ€™s death row is in a prison outside of Jackson, a remote town in a rural part of the
state. I drove there by myself, heading south on I-75 from Atlanta, my heart pounding harder
the closer I got. I didnâ€™t really know anything about capital punishment and hadnâ€™t even
taken a class in criminal procedure yet. I didnâ€™t have a basic grasp of the complex appeals
process that shaped death penalty litigation, a process that would in time become as familiar
to me as the back of my hand. When I signed up for this internship, I hadnâ€™t given much
thought to the fact that I would actually be meeting condemned prisoners. To be honest, I
didnâ€™t even know if I wanted to be a lawyer. As the miles ticked by on those rural roads, the
more convinced I became that this man was going to be very disappointed to see me.
I studied philosophy in college and didnâ€™t realize until my senior year that no one would pay
me to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a â€œpost-graduation planâ€ led me
to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about
your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didnâ€™t require you to know anything. At
Harvard, I could study law while pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the Kennedy
School of Government, which appealed to me. I was uncertain about what I wanted to do
with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, Americaâ€™s
history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another. It
would have something to do with the things Iâ€™d already seen in life so far and wondered
about, but I couldnâ€™t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear.
Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry Iâ€™d made the wrong choice.
Coming from a small college in Pennsylvania, I felt very fortunate to have been admitted, but
by the end of my first year Iâ€™d grown disillusioned. At the time, Harvard Law School was a
pretty intimidating place, especially for a twenty-one-year-old. Many of the professors used
the Socratic methodâ€”direct, repetitive, and adversarial questioningâ€”which had the
incidental effect of humiliating unprepared students. The courses seemed esoteric and
disconnected from the race and poverty issues that had motivated me to consider the law in
the first place.
Many of the students already had advanced degrees or had worked as paralegals with
prestigious law firms. I had none of those credentials. I felt vastly less experienced and
worldly than my fellow students. When law firms showed up on campus and began
interviewing students a month after classes started, my classmates put on expensive suits and
signed up so that they could receive â€œfly-outsâ€ to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or
Washington, D.C. It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparing
ourselves to do. I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school.
I spent the summer after my first year in law school working with a juvenile justice project
in Philadelphia and taking advanced calculus courses at night to prepare for my next year at
the Kennedy School. After I started the public policy program in September, I still felt
disconnected. The curriculum was extremely quantitative, focused on figuring out how to
maximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefits
achieved and the costs created. While intellectually stimulating, decision theory,
econometrics, and similar courses left me feeling adrift. But then, suddenly, everything came
I discovered that the law school offered an unusual one-month intensive course on race and
poverty litigation taught by Betsy Bartholet, a law professor who had worked as an attorney
with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Unlike most courses, this one took students off campus,
requiring them to spend the month with an organization doing social justice work. I eagerly
signed up, and so in December 1983 I found myself on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where I
was scheduled to spend a few weeks working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee
I hadnâ€™t been able to afford a direct flight to Atlanta, so I had to change planes in Charlotte,
North Carolina, and thatâ€™s where I met Steve Bright, the director of the SPDC, who was flying
back to Atlanta after the holidays. Steve was in his mid-thirties and had a passion and
certainty that seemed the direct opposite of my ambivalence. Heâ€™d grown up on a farm in
Kentucky and ended up in Washington, D.C., after finishing law school. He was a brilliant
trial lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and had just been
recruited to take over the SPDC, whose mission was to assist condemned people on death row
in Georgia. He showed none of the disconnect between what he did and what he believed
that Iâ€™d seen in so many of my law professors. When we met he warmly wrapped me in a fullbody hug, and then we started talking. We didnâ€™t stop till weâ€™d reached Atlanta.
â€œBryan,â€ he said at some point during our short flight, â€œcapital punishment means â€˜them
without the capital get the punishment.â€™ We canâ€™t help people on death row without help
from people like you.â€
I was taken aback by his immediate belief that I had something to offer. He broke down the
issues with the death penalty simply but persuasively, and I hung on every word, completely
engaged by his dedication and charisma.
â€œI just hope youâ€™re not expecting anything too fancy while youâ€™re here,â€ he said.
â€œOh, no,â€ I assured him. â€œIâ€™m grateful for the opportunity to work with you.â€
â€œWell, â€˜opportunityâ€™ isnâ€™t necessarily the first word people think of when they think about
doing work with us. We live kind of simply, and the hours are pretty intense.â€
â€œThatâ€™s no problem for me.â€
â€œWell, actually, we might even be described as living less than simply. More like living
poorlyâ€”maybe even barely living, struggling to hang on, surviving on the kindness of
strangers, scraping by day by day, uncertain of the future.â€
I let slip a concerned look, and he laughed.
â€œIâ€™m just kidding â€¦ kind of.â€
He moved on to other subjects, but it was clear that his heart and his mind were aligned
with the plight of the condemned and those facing unjust treatment in jails and prisons. It
was deeply affirming to meet someone whose work so powerfully animated his life.
There were just a few attorneys working at the SPDC when I arrived that winter. Most of
them were former criminal defense lawyers from Washington who had come to Georgia in
response to a growing crisis: Death row prisoners couldnâ€™t get lawyers. In their thirties, men
and women, black and white, these lawyers were comfortable with one another in a way that
reflected a shared mission, shared hope, and shared stress about the challenges they faced.
After years of prohibition and delay, executions were again taking place in the Deep South,
and most of the people crowded on death row had no lawyers and no right to counsel. There
was a growing fear that people would soon be killed without ever having their cases reviewed
by skilled counsel. We were getting frantic calls every day from people who had no legal
assistance but whose dates of execution were on the calendar and approaching fast. Iâ€™d never
heard voices so desperate.
When I started my internship, everyone was extremely kind to me, and I felt immediately
at home. The SPDC was located in downtown Atlanta in the Healey Building, a sixteen-story
Gothic Revival structure built in the early 1900s that was in considerable decline and losing
tenants. I worked in a cramped circle of desks with two lawyers and did clerical work,
answering phones and researching legal questions for staff. I was just getting settled into my
office routine when Steve asked me to go to death row to meet with a condemned man whom
no one else had time to visit. He explained that the man had been on the row for over two
years and that they didnâ€™t yet have a lawyer to take his case; my job was to convey to this
man one simple message: You will not be killed in the next year.
I drove through farmland and wooded areas of rural Georgia, rehearsing what I would say
when I met this man. I practiced my introduction over and over.
â€œHello, my name is Bryan. Iâ€™m a student with the â€¦â€ No. â€œIâ€™m a law student with â€¦â€ No.
â€œMy name is Bryan Stevenson. Iâ€™m a legal intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense
Committee, and Iâ€™ve been instructed to inform you that you will not be executed soon.â€ â€œYou
canâ€™t be executed soon.â€ â€œYou are not at risk of execution anytime soon.â€ No.
I continued practicing my presentation until I pulled up to the intimidating barbed-wire
fence and white guard tower of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center. Around the
office we just called it â€œJackson,â€ so seeing the facilityâ€™s actual name on a sign was jarringâ€”it
sounded clinical, even therapeutic. I parked and found my way to the prison entrance and
walked inside the main building with its dark corridors and gated hallways, where metal bars
barricaded every access point. The interior eliminated any doubt that this was a hard place.
I walked down a tunneled corridor to the legal visitation area, each step echoing ominously
across the spotless tiled floor. When I told the visitation officer that I was a paralegal sent to
meet with a death row prisoner, he looked at me suspiciously. I was wearing the only suit I
owned, and we could both see that it had seen better days. The officerâ€™s eyes seemed to linger
long and hard over my driverâ€™s license before he tilted his head toward me to speak.
â€œYouâ€™re not local.â€
It was more of a statement than a question.
â€œNo, sir. Well, Iâ€™m working in Atlanta.â€ After calling the wardenâ€™s office to confirm that my
visit had been properly scheduled, he finally admitted me, brusquely directing me to the
small room where the visit would take place. â€œDonâ€™t get lost in here; we donâ€™t promise to
come and find you,â€ he warned.
The visitation room was twenty feet square with a few stools bolted to the floor. Everything
in the room was made of metal and secured. In front of the stools, wire mesh ran from a small
ledge up to a ceiling twelve feet high. The room was an empty cage until I walked into it. For
family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh interior wall; they
spoke to one another through the wires of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were
â€œcontact visitsâ€â€”the two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit more
privacy. The room was small and, although I knew it couldnâ€™t be true, it felt like it was
getting smaller by the second. I began worrying again about my lack of preparation. Iâ€™d
scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasnâ€™t sure how Iâ€™d fill even fifteen
minutes with what I knew. I sat down on one of the stools and waited. After fifteen minutes
of growing anxiety, I finally heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door.
The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me, his face
screwed up in a worried wince, and he quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He
didnâ€™t move far from the roomâ€™s entrance, as if he didnâ€™t really want to enter the visitation
room. He was a young, neatly groomed African American man with short hairâ€”clean-shaven,
medium frame and buildâ€”wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately
familiar to me, like everyone Iâ€™d grown up with, friends from school, people I played sports or
music with, someone Iâ€™d talk to on the street about the weather. The guard slowly unchained
him, removing his handcuffs and the shackles around his ankles, and then locked eyes with
me and told me I had one hour. The officer seemed to sense that both the prisoner and I were
nervous and to take some pleasure in our discomfort, grinning at me before turning on his
heel and leaving the room. The metal door banged loudly behind him and reverberated
through the small space.
The condemned man didnâ€™t come any closer, and I didnâ€™t know what else to do, so I walked
over and offered him my hand. He shook it cautiously. We sat down and he spoke first.
â€œIâ€™m Henry,â€ he said.
â€œIâ€™m very sorryâ€ were the first words I blurted out. Despite all my preparations and
rehearsed remarks, I couldnâ€™t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly.
â€œIâ€™m really sorry, Iâ€™m really sorry, uh, okay, I donâ€™t really know, uh, Iâ€™m just a law student,
Iâ€™m not a real lawyer.â€¦ Iâ€™m so sorry I canâ€™t tell you very much, but I donâ€™t know very much.â€
The man looked at me worriedly. â€œIs everything all right with my case?â€
â€œOh, yes, sir. The lawyers at SPDC sent me down to tell you that they donâ€™t have a lawyer
yet.â€¦ I mean, we donâ€™t have a lawyer for you yet, but youâ€™re not at risk of execution anytime
in the next year.â€¦ Weâ€™re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer, and we hope the
lawyer will be down to see you in the next few months. Iâ€™m just a law student. Iâ€™m really
happy to help, I mean, if thereâ€™s something I can do.â€
The man interrupted my chatter by quickly grabbing my hands.
â€œIâ€™m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?â€
â€œNo, sir. They said it would be at least a year before you get an execution date.â€ Those
words didnâ€™t sound very comforting to me. But Henry just squeezed my hands tighter and
â€œThank you, man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news.â€ His shoulders unhunched,
and he looked at me with intense relief in his eyes.
â€œYou are the first person Iâ€™ve met in over two years after coming to death row who is not
another death row prisoner or a death row guard. Iâ€™m so glad youâ€™re here, and Iâ€™m so glad to
get this news.â€ He exhaled loudly and seemed to relax.
â€œIâ€™ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I havenâ€™t wanted her to come and visit me
or bring the kids because I was afraid theyâ€™d show up and Iâ€™d have an execution date. I just
donâ€™t want them here like that. Now Iâ€™m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank
I was astonished that he was so happy. I relaxed, too, and we began to talk. It turned out
that we were exactly the same age. Henry asked me questions about myself, and I asked him
about his life. Within an hour we were both lost in conversation. We talked about everything.
He told me about his family, and he told me about his trial. He asked me about law school
and my family. We talked about music, we talked about prison, we talked about whatâ€™s
important in life and whatâ€™s not. I was completely absorbed in our conversation. We laughed
at times, and there were moments when he was very emotional and sad. We kept talking and
talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized Iâ€™d stayed way
past my allotted time for the legal visit. I looked at my watch. Iâ€™d been there three hours.
The guard came in and he was angry. He snarled at me, â€œYou should have been done a long
time ago. You have to leave.â€
He began handcuffing Henry, pulling his hands together behind his back and locking them
there. Then he roughly shackled Henryâ€™s ankles. The guard was so angry he put the cuffs on
too tight. I could see Henry grimacing with pain.
I said, â€œI think those cuffs are on too tight. Can you loosen them, please?â€
â€œI told you: You need to leave. You donâ€™t tell me how to do my job.â€
Henry gave me a smile and said, â€œItâ€™s okay, Bryan. Donâ€™t worry about this. Just come back
and see me again, okay?â€ I could see him wince with each click of the chains being tightened
around his waist.
I must have looked pretty distraught. Henry kept saying, â€œDonâ€™t worry, Bryan, donâ€™t worry.
Come back, okay?â€
As the officer pushed him toward the door, Henry turned back to look at me.
I started mumbling, â€œIâ€™m really sorry. Iâ€™m really sorâ€”â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry about this, Bryan,â€ he said, cutting me off. â€œJust come back.â€
I looked at him and struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring,
something that expressed my gratitude to him for being so patient with me. But I couldnâ€™t
think of anything to say. Henry looked at me and smiled. The guard was shoving him toward
the door roughly. I didnâ€™t like the way Henry was being treated, but he continued to smile
until, just before the guard could push him fully out of the room, he planted his feet to resist
the officerâ€™s shoving. He looked so calm. Then he did something completely unexpected. I
watched him close his eyes and tilt his head back. I was confused by what he was doing, but
then he opened his mouth and I understood. He began to sing. He had a tremendous baritone
voice that was strong and clear. It startled both me and the guard, who stopped his pushing.
Iâ€™m pressing on, the upward way
New heights Iâ€™m gaining, every day
Still praying as, Iâ€™m onward bound
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in the church where I grew up. I hadnâ€™t
heard it in years. Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction. It took a
moment before the officer recovered and resumed pushing him out the door. Because his
ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, Henry almost stumbled
when the guard shoved him forward. He had to waddle to keep his balance, but he kept on
singing. I could hear him as he went down the hall:
Lord lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Heavenâ€™s tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
I sat down, completely stunned. Henryâ€™s voice was filled with desire. I experienced his song
as a precious gift. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness
to tolerate my inadequacy. I didnâ€™t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no
right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing
measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of
human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.
I finished my internship committed to helping the death row prisoners I had met that
month. Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each personâ€™s
humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own. I went back to law school with an
intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and
extreme punishments. I piled up courses on constitutional law, litigation, appellate procedure,
federal courts, and collateral remedies. I did extra work to broaden my understanding of how
constitutional theory shapes criminal procedure. I plunged deeply into the law and the
sociology of race, poverty, and power. Law school had seemed abstract and disconnected
before, but after meeting the desperate and imprisoned, it all became relevant and critically
important. Even my studies at the Kennedy School took on a new significance. Developing the
skills to quantify and deconstruct the discrimination and inequality I saw became urgent and
My short time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat
people in our judicial system, that maybe we judge some people unfairly. The more I
reflected on the experience, the more I recognized that I had been struggling my whole life
with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly.
I grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement on the eastern shore of the Delmarva
Peninsula, in Delaware, where the racial history of this country casts a long shadow. The
coastal communities that stretched from Virginia and eastern Maryland to lower Delaware
were unapologetically Southern. Many people in the region insisted on a racialized hierarchy
that required symbols, markers, and constant reinforcement, in part because of the areaâ€™s
proximity to the North. Confederate flags were proudly displayed throughout the region,
boldly and defiantly marking the cultural, social, and political landscape.
African Americans lived in racially segregated ghettos isolated by railroad tracks within
small towns or in â€œcolored sectionsâ€ in the country. I grew up in a country settlement where
some people lived in tiny shacks; families without indoor plumbing had to use outhouses. We
shared our outdoor play space with chickens and pigs.
The black people around me were strong and determined but marginalized and excluded.
The poultry plant bus came each day to pick up adults and take them to the factory where
they would daily pluck, hack, and process thousands of chickens. My father left the area as a
teenager because there was no local high school for black children. He returned with my
mother and found work in a food factory; on weekends he did domestic work at beach
cottages and rentals. My mother had a civilian job at an Air Force base. It seemed that we
were all cloaked in an unwelcome garment of racial difference that constrained, confined,
and restricted us.
My relatives worked hard all the time but never seemed to prosper. My grandfather was
murdered when I was a teenager, but it didnâ€™t seem to matter much to the world outside our
My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved in Caroline County,
Virginia. She was born in the 1880s, her parents in the 1840s. Her father talked to her all the
time about growing up in slavery and how he learned to read and write but kept it a secret.
He hid the things he knewâ€”until Emancipation. The legacy of slavery very much shaped my
grandmother and the way she raised her nine children. It influenced the way she talked to
me, the way she constantly told me to â€œKeep close.â€
When I visited her, she would hug me so tightly I could barely breathe. After a little while,
she would ask me, â€œBryan, do you still feel me hugging you?â€ If I said yes, sheâ€™d let me be; if I
said no, she would assault me again. I said no a lot because it made me happy to be wrapped
in her formidable arms. She never tired of pulling me to her.
â€œYou canâ€™t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get
close,â€ she told me all the time.
The distance I experienced in my first year of law school made me feel lost. Proximity to
the condemned, to people unfairly judged; that was what guided me back to something that
felt like home.
This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.
It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when
we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
Itâ€™s also about a dramatic period in our recent history, a period that indelibly marked the
lives of millions of Americansâ€”of all races, ages, and sexesâ€”and the American psyche as a
When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a
radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation
and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest
rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people
in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on
probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is
expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is
expected to be incarcerated.
We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to
carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row.
Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; weâ€™ve sent a quarter
million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of
twelve. For years, weâ€™ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life
imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in
Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in
prison. Weâ€™ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or
minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a
costly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than a half-million
people in state or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980.
We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like â€œThree strikes and
youâ€™re outâ€ to communicate our toughness. Weâ€™ve given up on rehabilitation, education, and
services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too
kind and compassionate. Weâ€™ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst
acts and permanently label them â€œcriminal,â€ â€œmurderer,â€ â€œrapist,â€ â€œthief,â€ â€œdrug dealer,â€ â€œsex
offender,â€ â€œfelonâ€â€”identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their
crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.
The collateral consequences of mass incarceration have been equally profound. We ban
poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if
they have prior drug convictions. We have created a new caste system that forces thousands
of people into homelessness, bans them from living with their families and in their
communities, and renders them virtually unemployable. Some states permanently strip people
with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several Southern states
disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the
Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being
sentenced to death and nearly executed. Hundreds more have been released after being
proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guilt, poverty,
racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system
that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.
Finally, we spend lots of money. Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal
governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prison
builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and
local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people
locked up so that they can earn more profits. Private profit has corrupted incentives to
improve public safety, reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promote
rehabilitation of the incarcerated. State governments have been forced to shift funds from
public services, education, health, and welfare to pay for incarceration, and they now face
unprecedented economic crises as a result. The privatization of prison health care, prison
commerce, and a range of services has made mass incarceration a money-making windfall for
a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.
After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the
incarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, Iâ€™ve gotten close to people who
have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillian. In this
book you will learn the story of Walterâ€™s case, which taught me about our systemâ€™s disturbing
indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of
unfair prosecutions and convictions. Walterâ€™s experience taught me how our system
traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn
irresponsiblyâ€”not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the
victims of crime. But Walterâ€™s case also taught me something else: that there is light within
Walterâ€™s story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. Iâ€™ve represented abused
and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and
mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. Iâ€™ve represented women, whose numbers in
prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about
drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute
poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. Iâ€™ve represented mentally disabled people whose
illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. Iâ€™ve gotten close to victims of violent
crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass
imprisonmentâ€”prison staffâ€”have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less
just and merciful.
Iâ€™ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle
to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned
and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanityâ€”seeds of restoration that
come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each
of us is more than the worst thing weâ€™ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated
has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is
justice. Finally, Iâ€™ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the
character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be
measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us.
The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the
incarcerated, and the condemned.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of
compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can
make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of
mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass
incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe itâ€™s necessary to recognize
that we all need mercy, we all need justice, andâ€”perhapsâ€”we all need some measure of
The temporary receptionist was an elegant African American woman wearing a dark,
expensive business suitâ€”a well-dressed exception to the usual crowd at the Southern
Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta, where I had returned after graduation to
work full time. On her first day, Iâ€™d rambled over to her in my regular uniform of jeans and
sneakers and offered to answer any questions she might have to help her get acclimated. She
looked at me coolly and waved me away after reminding me that she was, in fact, an
experienced legal secretary. The next morning, when I arrived at work in another jeans and
sneakers ensemble, she seemed startled, as if some strange vagrant had made a wrong turn
into the office. She took a beat to compose herself, then summoned me over to confide that
she was leaving in a week to work at a â€œreal law office.â€ I wished her luck. An hour later, she
called my office to tell me that â€œRobert E. Leeâ€ was on the phone. I smiled, pleased that Iâ€™d
misjudged her; she clearly had a sense of humor.
â€œThatâ€™s really funny.â€
â€œIâ€™m not joking. Thatâ€™s what he said,â€ she said, sounding bored, not playful. â€œLine two.â€
I picked up the line.
â€œHello, this is Bryan Stevenson. May I help you?â€
â€œBryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you want to represent someone
like Walter McMillian? Do you know heâ€™s reputed to be one of the biggest drug dealers in all
of South Alabama? I got your notice entering an appearance, but you donâ€™t want anything to
do with this case.â€
â€œThis is Judge Key, and you donâ€™t want to have anything to do with this McMillian case. No
one really understands how depraved this situation truly is, including me, but I know itâ€™s
ugly. These men might even be Dixie Mafia.â€
The lecturing tone and bewildering phrases from a judge Iâ€™d never met left me completely
confused. â€œDixie Mafiaâ€? Iâ€™d met Walter McMillian two weeks earlier, after spending a day on
death row to begin work on five capital cases. I hadnâ€™t reviewed the trial transcript yet, but I
did remember that the judgeâ€™s last name was Key. No one had told me the Robert E. Lee part.
I struggled for an image of â€œDixie Mafiaâ€ that would fit Walter McMillian.
â€œ â€˜Dixie Mafiaâ€™?â€
â€œYes, and thereâ€™s no telling what else. Now, son, Iâ€™m just not going to appoint some out-ofstate lawyer whoâ€™s not a member of the Alabama bar to take on one of these death penalty
cases, so you just go ahead and withdraw.â€
â€œIâ€™m a member of the Alabama bar.â€
I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, but I had been admitted to the Alabama bar a year earlier after
working on some cases in Alabama concerning jail and prison conditions.
â€œWell, Iâ€™m now sitting in Mobile. Iâ€™m not up in Monroeville anymore. If we have a hearing
on your motion, youâ€™re going to have to come all the way from Atlanta to Mobile. Iâ€™m not
going to accommodate you no kind of way.â€
â€œI understand, sir. I can come to Mobile, if necessary.â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m also not going to appoint you because I donâ€™t think heâ€™s indigent. Heâ€™s reported
to have money buried all over Monroe County.â€
â€œJudge, Iâ€™m not seeking appointment. Iâ€™ve told Mr. McMillian that we wouldâ€”â€ The dial
tone interrupted my first affirmative statement of the phone call. I spent several minutes
thinking weâ€™d been accidentally disconnected before finally realizing that a judge had just
hung up on me.
I was in my late twenties and about to start my fourth year at the SPDC when I met Walter
McMillian. His case was one of the flood of cases Iâ€™d found myself frantically working on after
learning of a growing crisis in Alabama. The state had nearly a hundred people on death row
as well as the fastest-growing condemned population in the country, but it also had no public
defender system, which meant that large numbers of death row prisoners had no legal
representation of any kind. My friend Eva Ansley ran an Alabama prison project, which
tracked cases and matched lawyers with the condemned men. In 1988, we discovered an
opportunity to get federal funding to create a legal center that could represent people on
death row. The plan was to use that funding to start a new nonprofit. We hoped to open it in
Tuscaloosa and begin working on cases in the next year. Iâ€™d already worked on lots of death
penalty cases in several Southern states, sometimes winning a stay of execution just minutes
before an electrocution was scheduled. But I didnâ€™t think I was ready to take on the
responsibilities of running a nonprofit law office. I planned to help get the organization off
the ground, find a director, and then return to Atlanta.
When Iâ€™d visited death row a few weeks before that call from Robert E. Lee Key, I met with
five desperate condemned men: Willie Tabb, Vernon Madison, Jesse Morrison, Harry Nicks,
and Walter McMillian. It was an exhausting, emotionally taxing day, and the cases and clients
had merged together in my mind on the long drive back to Atlanta. But I remembered Walter.
He was at least fifteen years older than me, not particularly well educated, and he hailed
from a small rural community. The memorable thing about him was how insistent he was
that heâ€™d been wrongly convicted.
â€œMr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but itâ€™s important to me that you know that
Iâ€™m innocent and didnâ€™t do what they said I did, not no kinda way,â€ he told me in the meeting
room. His voice was level but laced with emotion. I nodded to him. I had learned to accept
what clients tell me until the facts suggest something else.
â€œSure, of course I understand. When I review the record Iâ€™ll have a better sense of what
evidence they have, and we can talk about it.â€
â€œBut â€¦ look, Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™m not the first person on death row to tell you that theyâ€™re
innocent, but I really need you to believe me. My life has been ruined! This lie they put on
me is more than I can bear, and if I donâ€™t get help from someone who believes meâ€”â€
His lip began to quiver, and he clenched his fists to stop himself from crying. I sat quietly
while he forced himself back into composure.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, I know youâ€™ll do everything you can to help me,â€ he said, his voice quieter. My
instinct was to comfort him; his pain seemed so sincere. But there wasnâ€™t much I could do,
and after several hours on the row talking to so many people, I could muster only enough
energy to reassure him that I would look at everything carefully.
I had several transcripts piled up in my small Atlanta office ready to move to Tuscaloosa once
the office opened. With Judge Robert E. Lee Keyâ€™s peculiar comments still running through
my head, I went through the mound of records until I found the transcripts from Walter
McMillianâ€™s trial. There were only four volumes of trial proceedings, which meant that the
trial had been short. The judgeâ€™s dramatic warnings now made Mr. McMillianâ€™s emotional
claim of innocence too intriguing to put off any longer. I started reading.
Even though he had lived in Monroe County his whole life, Walter McMillian had never heard
of Harper Lee or To Kill a Mockingbird. Monroeville, Alabama, celebrated its native daughter
Lee shamelessly after her award-winning book became a national bestseller in the 1960s. She
returned to Monroe County but secluded herself and was rarely seen in public. Her
reclusiveness proved no barrier to the countyâ€™s continued efforts to market her literary classic
â€”or to market itself by using the bookâ€™s celebrity. Production of the film adaptation brought
Gregory Peck to town for the infamous courtroom scenes; his performance won him an
Academy Award. Local leaders later turned the old courthouse into a â€œMockingbirdâ€ museum.
A group of locals formed â€œThe Mockingbird Players of Monroevilleâ€ to present a stage version
of the story. The production was so popular that national and international tours were
organized to provide an authentic presentation of the fictional story to audiences everywhere.
Sentimentality about Leeâ€™s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root.
The story of an innocent black man bravely defended by a white lawyer in the 1930s
fascinated millions of readers, despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations of
rape involving a white woman. Leeâ€™s endearing characters, Atticus Finch and his precocious
daughter, Scout, captivated readers while confronting them with some of the realities of race
and justice in the South. A generation of future lawyers grew up hoping to become the
courageous Atticus, who at one point arms himself to protect the defenseless black suspect
from an angry mob of white men looking to lynch him.
Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fictional lawyerâ€™s name to
celebrate the model of advocacy described in Leeâ€™s novel. What is often overlooked is that the
black man falsely accused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. Tom
Robinson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he dies when, full of
despair, he makes a desperate attempt to escape from prison. He is shot seventeen times in
the back by his captors, dying ingloriously but not unlawfully.
Walter McMillian, like Tom Robinson, grew up in one of several poor black settlements
outside of Monroeville, where he worked the fields with his family before he was old enough
to attend school. The children of sharecroppers in southern Alabama were introduced to
â€œplowinâ€™, plantinâ€™, and pickinâ€™ â€ as soon as they were old enough to be useful in the fields.
Educational opportunities for black children in the 1950s were limited, but Walterâ€™s mother
got him to the dilapidated â€œcolored schoolâ€ for a couple of years when he was young. By the
time Walter was eight or nine, he became too valuable for picking cotton to justify the remote
advantages of going to school. By the age of eleven, Walter could run a plow as well as any of
his older siblings.
Times were changingâ€”for better and for worse. Monroe County had been developed by
plantation owners in the nineteenth century for the production of cotton. Situated in the
coastal plain of southwest Alabama, the fertile, rich black soil of the area attracted white
settlers from the Carolinas who amassed very successful plantations and a huge slave
population. For decades after the Civil War, the large African American population toiled in
the fields of the â€œBlack Beltâ€ as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, dependent on white
landowners for survival. In the 1940s, thousands of African Americans left the region as part
of the Great Migration and headed mostly to the Midwest and West Coast for jobs. Those who
remained continued to work the land, but the out-migration of African Americans combined
with other factors to make traditional agriculture less sustainable as the economic base of the
By the 1950s, small cotton farming was becoming increasingly less profitable, even with
the low-wage labor provided by black sharecroppers and tenants. The State of Alabama
agreed to help white landowners in the region transition to timber farming and forest
products by providing extraordinary tax incentives for pulp and paper mills. Thirteen of the
stateâ€™s sixteen pulp and paper mills were opened during this period. Across the Black Belt,
more and more acres were converted to growing pine trees for paper mills and industrial
uses. African Americans, largely excluded from this new industry, found themselves
confronting new economic challenges even as they won basic civil rights. The brutal era of
sharecropping and Jim Crow was ending, but what followed was persistent unemployment
and worsening poverty. The regionâ€™s counties remained some of the poorest in America.
Walter was smart enough to see the trend. He started his own pulpwood business that
evolved with the timber industry in the 1970s. He astutelyâ€”and bravelyâ€”borrowed money
to buy his own power saw, tractor, and pulpwood truck. By the 1980s, he had developed a
solid business that didnâ€™t generate a lot of extra money but afforded him a gratifying degree
of independence. If he had worked at the mill or the factory or had had some other unskilled
jobâ€”the kind that most poor black people in South Alabama workedâ€”it would invariably
mean working for white business owners and dealing with all the racial stress that that
implied in Alabama in the 1970s and 1980s. Walter couldnâ€™t escape the reality of racism, but
having his own business in a growing sector of the economy gave him a latitude that many
African Americans did not enjoy.
That independence won Walter some measure of respect and admiration, but it also
cultivated contempt and suspicion, especially outside of Monroevilleâ€™s black community.
Walterâ€™s freedom was, for some of the white people in town, well beyond what African
Americans with limited education were able to achieve through legitimate means. Still, he
was pleasant, respectful, generous, and accommodating, which made him well liked by the
people with whom he did business, whether black or white.
Walter was not without his flaws. He had long been known as a ladiesâ€™ man. Even though
he had married young and had three children with his wife, Minnie, it was well known that
he was romantically involved with other women. â€œTree workâ€ is notoriously demanding and
dangerous. With few ordinary comforts in his life, the attention of women was something
Walter did not easily resist. There was something about his rough exteriorâ€”his bushy long
hair and uneven beardâ€”combined with his generous and charming nature that attracted the
attention of some women.
Walter grew up understanding how forbidden it was for a black man to be intimate with a
white woman, but by the 1980s he had allowed himself to imagine that such matters might
be changing. Perhaps if he hadnâ€™t been successful enough to live off his own business he
would have more consistently kept in mind those racial lines that could never be crossed. As
it was, Walter didnâ€™t initially think much of the flirtations of Karen Kelly, a young white
woman heâ€™d met at the Waffle House where he ate breakfast. She was attractive, but he didnâ€™t
take her too seriously. When her flirtations became more explicit, Walter hesitated, and then
persuaded himself that no one would ever know.
After a few weeks, it became clear that his relationship with Karen was trouble. At twentyfive, Karen was eighteen years younger than Walter, and she was married. As word got
around that the two were â€œfriends,â€ she seemed to take a titillating pride in her intimacy with
Walter. When her husband found out, things quickly turned ugly. Karen and her husband,
Joe, had long been unhappy and were already planning to divorce, but her scandalous
involvement with a black man outraged Karenâ€™s husband and his entire family. He initiated
legal proceedings to gain custody of their children and became intent on publicly disgracing
his wife by exposing her infidelity and revealing her relationship with a black man.
For his part, Walter had always stayed clear of the courts and far away from the law. Years
earlier, he had been drawn into a bar fight that resulted in a misdemeanor conviction and a
night in jail. It was the first and only time he had ever been in trouble. From that point on, he
had no exposure to the criminal justice system.
When Walter received a subpoena from Karen Kellyâ€™s husband to testify at a hearing where
the Kellys would be fighting over their childrenâ€™s custody, he knew it was going to cause him
serious problems. Unable to consult with his wife, Minnie, who had a better head for these
kinds of crises, he nervously went to the courthouse. The lawyer for Kellyâ€™s husband called
Walter to the stand. Walter had decided to acknowledge being a â€œfriendâ€ of Karen. Her
lawyer objected to the crude questions posed to Walter by the husbandâ€™s attorney about the
nature of his friendship, sparing him from providing any details, but when he left the
courtroom the anger and animosity toward him were palpable. Walter wanted to forget about
the whole ordeal, but word spread quickly, and his reputation shifted. No longer the hardworking pulpwood man, known to white people almost exclusively for what he could do with
a saw in the pine trees, Walter now represented something more worrisome.
Fears of interracial sex and marriage have deep roots in the United States. The confluence of
race and sex was a powerful force in dismantling Reconstruction after the Civil War,
sustaining Jim Crow laws for a century and fueling divisive racial politics throughout the
twentieth century. In the aftermath of slavery, the creation of a system of racial hierarchy and
segregation was largely designed to prevent intimate relationships like Walter and Karenâ€™sâ€”
relationships that were, in fact, legally prohibited by â€œanti-miscegenation statutesâ€ (the word
miscegenation came into use in the 1860s, when supporters of slavery coined the term to
promote the fear of interracial sex and marriage and the race mixing that would result if
slavery was abolished). For over a century, law enforcement officials in many Southern
communities absolutely saw it as part of their duty to investigate and punish black men who
had been intimate with white women.
Although the federal government had promised racial equality for freed former slaves
during the short period of Reconstruction, the return of white supremacy and racial
subordination came quickly after federal troops left Alabama in the 1870s. Voting rights were
taken away from African Americans, and a series of racially restrictive laws enforced the
racial hierarchy. â€œRacial integrityâ€ laws were part of a plan to replicate slaveryâ€™s racial
hierarchy and reestablish the subordination of African Americans. Having criminalized
interracial sex and marriage, states throughout the South would use the laws to justify the
forced sterilization of poor and minority women. Forbidding sex between white women and
black men became an intense preoccupation throughout the South.
In the 1880s, a few years before lynching became the standard response to interracial
romance and a century before Walter and Karen Kelly began their affair, Tony Pace, an
African American man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, fell in love in Alabama. They were
arrested and convicted, and both were sentenced to two years in prison for violating
Alabamaâ€™s racial integrity laws. John Tompkins, a lawyer and part of a small minority of
white professionals who considered the racial integrity laws to be unconstitutional, agreed to
represent Tony and Mary to appeal their convictions. The Alabama Supreme Court reviewed
the case in 1882. With rhetoric that would be quoted frequently over the next several
decades, Alabamaâ€™s highest court affirmed the convictions, using language that dripped with
contempt for the idea of interracial romance:
The evil tendency of the crime [of adultery or fornication] is greater when committed between persons of the two races.
â€¦ Its result may be the amalgamation of the two races, producing a mongrel population and a degraded civilization, the
prevention of which is dictated by a sound policy affecting the highest interests of society and government.
The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the Alabama courtâ€™s decision. Using â€œseparate but equalâ€
language that previewed the Courtâ€™s infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson twenty years
later, the Court unanimously upheld Alabamaâ€™s restrictions on interracial sex and marriage
and affirmed the prison terms imposed on Tony Pace and Mary Cox. Following the Courtâ€™s
decision, more states passed racial integrity laws that made it illegal for African Americans,
and sometimes Native Americans and Asian Americans, to marry or have sex with whites.
While the restrictions were aggressively enforced in the South, they were also common in the
Midwest and West. The State of Idaho banned interracial marriage and sex between white
and black people in 1921 even though the stateâ€™s population was 99.8 percent nonblack.
It wasnâ€™t until 1967 that the United States Supreme Court finally struck down antimiscegenation statutes in Loving v. Virginia, but restrictions on interracial marriage persisted
even after that landmark ruling. Alabamaâ€™s state constitution still prohibited the practice in
1986 when Walter met Karen Kelly. Section 102 of the state constitution read:
The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or
descendant of a Negro.*
No one expected a relatively successful and independent man like Walter to follow every
rule. Occasionally drinking too much, getting into a fight, or even having an extramarital
affairâ€”these werenâ€™t indiscretions significant enough to destroy the reputation and standing
of an honest and industrious black man who could be trusted to do good work. But interracial
dating, particularly with a married white woman, was for many whites, an unconscionable
act. In the South, crimes like murder or assault might send you to prison, but interracial sex
was a transgression in its own unique category of danger with correspondingly extreme
punishments. Hundreds of black men have been lynched for even unsubstantiated suggestions
of such intimacy.
Walter didnâ€™t know the legal history, but like every black man in Alabama he knew deep in
his bones the perils of interracial romance. Nearly a dozen people had been lynched in
Monroe County alone since its incorporation. Dozens of additional lynchings had taken place
in neighboring countiesâ€”and the true power of those lynchings far exceeded their number.
They were acts of terror more than anything else, inspiring fear that any encounter with a
white person, any interracial social misstep, any unintended slight, any ill-advised look or
comment could trigger a gruesome and lethal response.
Walter heard his parents and relatives talk about lynchings when he was a young child.
When he was twelve, the body of Russell Charley, a black man from Monroe County, was
found hanging from a tree in Vredenburgh, Alabama. The lynching of Charley, who was
known by Walterâ€™s family, was believed to have been prompted by an interracial romance.
Walter remembered well the terror that shot through the black community in Monroe County
when Charleyâ€™s lifeless, bullet-ridden body was found swinging in a tree.
And now it seemed to Walter that everyone in Monroe County was talking about his own
relationship with Karen Kelly. It worried him in a way that few things ever had.
A few weeks later, an even more unthinkable act shocked Monroeville. In the late morning of
November 1, 1986, Ronda Morrison, the beautiful young daughter of a respected local family,
was found dead on the floor of Monroe Cleaners, the shop where the eighteen-year-old
college student had worked. She had been shot in the back three times.
Murder was uncommon in Monroeville. An apparent robbery-murder in a popular
downtown business was unprecedented. The death of young Ronda was a crime unlike
anything the community had ever experienced. She was popular, an only child, and by all
accounts without blemish. She was the kind of girl whom the entire white community
embraced as a daughter. The police initially believed that no one from the community, black
or white, would have done something so horrific.
Two Latino men had been spotted in Monroeville looking for work the day Ronda
Morrisonâ€™s body was found, and they became the first suspects. Police tracked them down in
Florida and determined that the two men could not have committed the murder. The former
owner of the cleaners, an older white man named Miles Jackson, fell under suspicion, but
there was no evidence that pointed to him as a killer. The current owner of the cleaners, Rick
Blair, was questioned but considered an unlikely suspect. Within a few weeks, the police had
tapped out their leads.
People in Monroe County began to whisper about the incompetence of the police. When
there were still no arrests several months later, the whispers became louder, and public
criticisms of the police, sheriff, and local prosecutor were aired in the local newspaper and on
local radio stations. Tom Tate was elected the new county sheriff days after the murder took
place, and folks started to question whether he was up to the job. The Alabama Bureau of
Investigation (ABI) was called in to investigate the murder but achieved no more success
solving the crime than local officials had. People in Monroeville became anxious. Local
businesses posted rewards offering thousands of dollars for information leading to an arrest.
Gun sales, which were always robust, increased.
Meanwhile, Walter was wrestling with his own problems. He had been trying for weeks to
end his relationship with Karen Kelly. The child custody proceedings and public scandal had
taken a toll on her; she had started using drugs and seemed to fall apart. She began to
associate with Ralph Myers, a white man with a badly disfigured face and lengthy criminal
record who seemed to perfectly embody her fall from grace. Ralph was an unusual partner for
Karen, but she was in such serious decline that nothing she did made any sense to her friends
and family. The relationship brought Karen to rock bottom, beyond scandal and drug use into
serious criminal behavior. Together they became involved in dealing drugs and were
implicated in the murder of Vickie Lynn Pittman, a young woman from neighboring Escambia
Police had quick success in investigating the Pittman murder, rapidly concluding that Ralph
Myers had been involved. When the police interrogated Ralph, they encountered a man as
psychologically complicated as he was physically scarred. He was emotional and frail, and he
craved attentionâ€”his only effective defense was his skill in manipulation and misdirection.
Ralph believed that everything he said had to be epic, shocking, and elaborate. As a child
living in foster care, he had been horribly burned in a fire. The burns so scarred and
disfigured his face and neck that he needed multiple surgeries to regain basic functioning. He
became quite used to strangers staring at his scars with pained expressions on their faces. He
was a tragic outcast who lived on the margins, but he tried to compensate by pretending to
have inside knowledge about all sorts of mysteries.
After initially denying any direct involvement in the Pittman murder, Myers conceded that
he may have played some accidental role but quickly put the blame for the murder itself on
more interesting local figures. He first accused a black man with a bad reputation named
Isaac Dailey, but the police quickly discovered that Dailey had been in a jail cell on the night
of the murder. Myers then confessed that he had made up the story because the true killer
was none other than the elected sheriff of a nearby county.
As outrageous as the claim was, ABI agents appeared to take it seriously. They asked him
more questions, but the more Myers talked, the less credible his story sounded. Officials
began to suspect that Myers was the sole killer and was desperately trying to implicate others
to minimize his culpability.
While the death of Vickie Pittman was news, it failed to compare with the continuing
mystery surrounding the death of Ronda Morrison. Vickie came from a poor white family,
several of whose members were incarcerated; she enjoyed none of the status of Ronda
Morrison. The Morrison murder remained the focus of everyoneâ€™s attention for months.
Ralph Myers was illiterate, but he knew that it was the Morrison crime that was
preoccupying law enforcement investigators. When his allegations against the sheriff didnâ€™t
seem to be going anywhere, he changed his story again and told investigators that he had
been involved in the murder of Vickie Pittman along with Karen Kelly and her black
boyfriend, Walter McMillian. But that wasnâ€™t all. He also told police that McMillian was
responsible for the murder of Ronda Morrison. That assertion attracted the full attention of
law enforcement officials.
It soon became apparent that Walter McMillian had never met Ralph Myers, let alone
committed two murders with him. To prove that the two of them were in cahoots, an ABI
agent asked Myers to meet Walter McMillian at a store while agents monitored the
interaction. It had been several months since Ronda Morrisonâ€™s murder.
Once Myers entered the store, he was not able to identify Walter McMillian among several
black men present (he had to ask the owner of the store to point McMillian out). He then
delivered a note to McMillian, purportedly written by Karen Kelly. According to witnesses,
Walter seemed confused both by Myers, a man he had never seen before, and the note itself.
Walter threw the note away and went back to what he was doing. He paid little attention to
the whole odd encounter.
The monitoring ABI agents were left with nothing to suggest any relationship between
Myers and McMillian and plenty of evidence indicating that the two men had never met. Still,
they persisted with the McMillian theory. Time was passingâ€”seven months, by this timeâ€”
and the community was fearful and angry. Criticism was mounting. They desperately needed
Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate did not have much law enforcement experience. By his
own description he was â€œvery localâ€ and took great pride in never having ventured too far
from Monroeville. Now, four months into his term as sheriff, he faced a seemingly unsolvable
murder and intense public pressure. When Myers told police about McMillianâ€™s relationship
with Karen Kelly, itâ€™s likely that the infamous interracial affair was already well known to
Tate as a result of the Kelly custody hearings that had generated so much gossip. But there
was no evidence against McMillianâ€”no evidence except that he was an African American
man involved in an adulterous interracial affair, which meant he was reckless and possibly
dangerous, even if he had no prior criminal history and a good reputation. Maybe that was
* Even though the restriction couldnâ€™t be enforced under federal law, the state ban on interracial marriage in Alabama
continued into the twenty-first century. In 2000, reformers finally had enough votes to get the issue on the statewide ballot,
where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it. A 2011 poll of Mississippi
Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage, 40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percent
After spending the first year and a half of my legal career sleeping on Steve Brightâ€™s living
room couch in Atlanta, it was time to find an apartment of my own. When Iâ€™d started working
in Atlanta, staff were scrambling to handle one crisis after another. I was immediately thrown
into litigation with pressing deadlines and didnâ€™t have time to find a place to liveâ€”and my
$14,000 annual salary didnâ€™t leave me with much money for rentâ€”so Steve kindly took me
in. Living in Steveâ€™s small Grant Park duplex allowed me to question him nonstop about the
complex issues and challenges our cases and clients presented. Each day we dissected big and
small issues from morning until midnight. I loved it. But when a law school classmate,
Charles Bliss, moved to Atlanta for a job with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, we realized that
if we pooled our meager salaries, we could afford a low-rent apartment. Charlie and I had
started at Harvard Law School together and had lived in the same dorm as first-year students.
He was a white kid from North Carolina who seemed to share my confusion about what we
were experiencing during law school. We frequently retreated to the school gym to play
basketball and to try to make sense of things.
Charlie and I found a place near Atlantaâ€™s Inman Park. After a year, a rent increase forced
us to move to the Virginia Highlands section of the city, where we stayed for a year before
another rent increase sent us to Midtown Atlanta. The two-bedroom apartment we shared in
Midtown was the nicest place in the nicest neighborhood weâ€™d yet found. Because of my
growing caseload in Alabama, I didnâ€™t get to spend much time there.
My plan for a new law project to represent people on death row in Alabama was starting to
take shape. My hope was to get the project off the ground in Alabama and eventually return
to Atlanta to live. My docket of new death penalty cases in Alabama meant I was working
insane hours driving back and forth from Atlanta and simultaneously trying to resolve several
prison condition cases I had filed in various Southern states.
Conditions of confinement for prisoners were getting worse everywhere. In the 1970s, the
Attica Prison riots drew national attention to horrible prison abuses. The takeover of Attica
by inmates allowed the country to learn about cruel practices within prisons such as solitary
confinement, where inmates are isolated in a small confined space for weeks or months.
Prisoners in some facilities would be placed in a â€œsweatbox,â€ a casket-sized hole or a box
situated where the inmate would be forced to endure extreme heat for days or weeks. Some
prisoners were tortured with electric cattle prods as punishment for violations of the prisonâ€™s
rule. Inmates at some facilities would be chained to â€œhitching posts,â€ their arms fastened
above their heads in a painful position where theyâ€™d be forced to stand for hours. The
practice, which wasnâ€™t declared unconstitutional until 2002, was one of many degrading and
dangerous punishments imposed on incarcerated people. Terrible food and living conditions
The death of forty-two people at the end of the Attica standoff exposed the danger of prison
abuse and inhumane conditions. The increased attention also led to several Supreme Court
rulings that provided basic due process protections for imprisoned people. Wary of potential
violence, several states implemented reforms to eliminate the most abusive practices. But a
decade later, the rapidly growing prison population inevitably led to a deterioration in the
conditions of confinement.
We were getting scores of letters from prisoners who continued to complain about horrible
conditions. Prisoners reported that they were still being beaten by correctional staff and
subjected to humiliation in stockades and other degrading punishments. An alarming number
of cases came to our office involving prisoners who had been found dead in their cells.
I was working on several of these cases, including one in Gadsden, Alabama, where jail
officials claimed that a thirty-nine-year-old black man had died of natural causes after being
arrested for traffic violations. His family maintained that he was beaten by police and jail
officials who then denied him his asthma inhaler and medication despite his begging for it.
Iâ€™d spent a lot of time with the grief-stricken family of Lourida Ruffin and heard what an
affectionate father he had been, how kind he had been, and how people had assumed things
about him that werenâ€™t true. At six feet five inches tall and over 250 pounds, he could seem a
little intimidating, but his wife and mother insisted that he was sweet and gentle.
Gadsden police had stopped Mr. Ruffin one night because they said his car was swerving.
Police discovered that his license had expired a few weeks earlier, so he was taken into
custody. When he arrived at the city jail badly bruised and bleeding, Mr. Ruffin told the other
inmates that he had been beaten terribly and was desperately in need of his inhaler and
asthma medication. When I started investigating the case, inmates at the jail told me they saw
officers beating Mr. Ruffin before taking him to an isolation cell. Several hours later they saw
medical personnel remove his body from the cell on a gurney.
Despite the reforms of the 1970s and early 1980s, inmate death in jails and prisons was still
a serious problem. Suicide, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, inadequate medical care, staff
abuse, and guard violence claimed the lives of hundreds of prisoners every year.
I soon received other complaints from people in the Gadsden community. The parents of a
black teenager who had been shot and killed by police told me that their son had been
stopped for a minor traffic violation after running a red light. Their young son had just
started driving and became very nervous when the police officer approached him. His family
maintained that he reached down to the floor where he kept his gym bag to retrieve his
newly issued driverâ€™s license. The police claimed he was reaching for a weaponâ€”no weapon
was ever foundâ€”and the teen was shot dead while he sat in his car. The officer who shot the
boy said that the teen had been menacing and had moved quickly, in a threatening manner.
The childâ€™s parents told me their son was generally nervous and easily frightened but was also
obedient and would never have hurt anyone. He was very religious and a good student, and
he had the kind of reputation that allowed the family to persuade civil rights leaders to push
for an investigation into his death. Their pleas reached our office, and I was looking into the
case along with the jail and prison cases.
Figuring out Alabama civil and criminal law while managing death penalty cases in several
other states kept me very busy. The additional prison conditions litigation meant a lot of
long-distance driving and extremely long hours. My weathered 1975 Honda Civic was
struggling to keep up. The radio had stopped working consistently a year earlier; it would
come to life only if I hit a pothole or stopped suddenly enough to violently shake the car and
spark a connection.
After making the three-hour drive back from Gadsden earlier in the day and heading
straight to the office, it was once again approaching midnight as I left the office for home. I
got in my car, and to my delight the radio came on as soon as I turned the ignition. In just
over three years of law practice I had become one of those people for whom such small
events could make a big difference in my joy quotient. On this late night, not only was my
radio working but the station was also hosting a retrospective on the music of Sly and the
Family Stone. Iâ€™d grown up listening to Sly and found myself rolling joyfully through the
streets of Atlanta to tunes like â€œDance to the Music,â€ â€œEverybody Is a Star,â€ and â€œFamily
Our Midtown Atlanta apartment was on a dense residential street. Some nights I had to
park halfway down the block or even around the corner to find a space. But tonight I was
lucky: I parked my rattling Civic just steps from our new front door just as Sly was starting
â€œHot Fun in the Summertime.â€ It was late, and I needed to get to bed, but the moment was
too good to let pass, so I remained in the car listening to the music. Each time a tune ended I
told myself to go inside, but then another irresistible song would begin, and I would find
myself unable to leave. I was singing along to â€œStand!â€ the soaring Sly anthem with the great
gospel-themed ending, when I saw a flashing police light approaching. I was parked a few
doors up from our apartment, so I assumed that the officers would drive by in pursuit of some
urgent mission. When they came to a stop twenty feet in front of me, I wondered what was
Our section of the street only ran one way. My parked car was facing in the proper
direction; the police car had come down the street in the wrong direction. I noticed for the
first time that it wasnâ€™t an ordinary police cruiser but one of the special Atlanta SWAT cars.
The officers had a spotlight attached to their vehicle, and they directed it at me sitting in my
car. Only then did it occur to me that they might be there for me, but I couldnâ€™t imagine why.
I had been parked on the street for about fifteen minutes listening to Sly. Only one of my car
speakers worked and not very well. I knew the music couldnâ€™t be heard outside the car.
The officers sat there with their light pointed at me for a minute or so. I turned off the
radio before â€œStand!â€ was over. I had case files on my car seat about Lourida Ruffin and the
young man who had been shot in Gadsden. Eventually two police officers got out of their
vehicle. I noticed immediately that they werenâ€™t wearing the standard Atlanta police uniform.
Instead they were ominously dressed in military style, black boots with black pants and vests.
I decided to get out of my car and go home. Even though they were intensely staring at me
in my car, I was still hoping that they were in the area for something unrelated to me. Or if
they were concerned that something was wrong with me, I figured I would let them know
that everything was okay. It certainly never occurred to me that getting out of my car was
wrong or dangerous.
As soon as I opened my car door and got out, the police officer who had started walking
toward my vehicle drew his weapon and pointed it at me. I must have looked completely
My first instinct was to run. I quickly decided that wouldnâ€™t be smart. Then I thought for an
instant that maybe these werenâ€™t real police officers.
â€œMove and Iâ€™ll blow your head off!â€ The officer shouted the words, but I couldnâ€™t make any
sense of what he meant. I tried to stay calm; it was the first time in my life anyone had ever
pointed a gun at me.
â€œPut your hands up!â€ The officer was a white man about my height. In the darkness I could
only make out his black uniform and his pointed weapon.
I put my hands up and noticed that he seemed nervous. I donâ€™t remember deciding to
speak, I just remember the words coming out: â€œItâ€™s all right. Itâ€™s okay.â€
Iâ€™m sure I sounded afraid because I was terrified.
I kept saying the words over and over again. â€œItâ€™s okay, itâ€™s okay.â€ Finally I said, â€œI live
here, this is my apartment.â€
I looked at the officer who was pointing the gun at my head less than fifteen feet away. I
thought I saw his hands shaking.
I kept saying as calmly as I could: â€œItâ€™s okay, itâ€™s okay.â€
The second officer, who had not drawn his weapon, inched cautiously toward me. He
stepped on the sidewalk, circled behind my parked car, and came up behind me while the
other officer continued to point the gun at me. He grabbed me by the arms and pushed me up
against the back of my car. The other officer then lowered his weapon.
â€œWhat are you doing out here?â€ said the second officer, who seemed older than the one
who had drawn his weapon. He sounded angry.
â€œI live here. I moved into that house down the street just a few months ago. My roommate
is inside. You can go ask him.â€ I hated how afraid I sounded and the way my voice was
â€œWhat are you doing out in the street?â€
â€œI was just listening to the radio.â€ He placed my hands on the car and bent me over the
back of the vehicle. The SWAT carâ€™s bright spotlight was still focused on me. I noticed people
up the block turning on their lights and peering out of their front doors. The house next to
ours came to life, and a middle-aged white man and woman walked outside and stared at me
as I was leaned over the vehicle.
The officer holding me asked me for my driverâ€™s license but wouldnâ€™t let me move my arms
to retrieve it. I told him that it was in my back pocket, and he fished my wallet out from my
pants. The other officer was now leaning inside my car and going through my papers. I knew
that he had no probable cause to enter my vehicle and that he was conducting an illegal
search. I was about to say something when I saw him open the glove compartment. Opening
objects in a parked vehicle was so incredibly illegal that I realized he wasnâ€™t paying any
attention to the rules, so saying something about it would be pointless.
There was nothing interesting in my car. There were no drugs, no alcohol, not even
tobacco. I kept a giant-size bag of peanut M&Ms and Bazooka bubble gum in the glove
compartment to help stave off hunger when I didnâ€™t have time for a meal. There were just a
few M&Ms left in the bag, which the officer inspected carefully. He put his nose into the bag
before tossing it back. I wouldnâ€™t be eating those M&Ms.
I had not lived at our new address long enough to get a new driverâ€™s license, so the address
on my license didnâ€™t match the new location. There was no legal requirement to update the
driverâ€™s license, but it prompted the officer to hold me there for another ten minutes while he
went back to his car to run a search on me. My neighbors grew bolder as the encounter
dragged on. Even though it was late, people were coming out of their homes to watch. I could
hear them talking about all the burglaries in the neighborhood. There was a particularly
vocal older white woman who loudly demanded that I be questioned about items she was
â€œAsk him about my radio and my vacuum cleaner!â€ Another lady asked about her cat who
had been absent for three days. I kept waiting for my apartment light to come on and for
Charlie to walk outside and help me out. He had been dating a woman who also worked at
Legal Aid and had been spending a lot of time at her house. It occurred to me that he might
not be home.
Finally, the officer returned and spoke to his partner: â€œThey donâ€™t have anything on him.â€
He sounded disappointed.
I found my nerve and took my hands off the car. â€œThis is so messed up. I live here. You
shouldnâ€™t have done this. Why did you do this?â€
The older officer frowned at me. â€œSomeone called about a suspected burglar. There have
been a lot of burglaries in this neighborhood.â€ Then he grinned. â€œWeâ€™re going to let you go.
You should be happy,â€ he said.
With that, they walked away, got in their SWAT car, and drove off. The neighbors looked
me over one last time before retreating back into their homes. I couldnâ€™t decide whether I
should race to my door so that they could see that I lived in the neighborhood or wait until
they were all gone so that no one would know where the â€œsuspected criminalâ€ lived. I
decided to wait.
I gathered up my papers, which the cop had scattered all over the car and onto the
sidewalk. I unhappily threw my M&Ms into a trash can on the street and then walked into my
apartment. To my great relief, Charlie was there. I woke him to tell the story.
â€œThey never even apologized,â€ I kept saying. Charlie shared my outrage but soon fell back
asleep. I couldnâ€™t sleep at all.
The next morning I told Steve about the incident. He was furious and urged me to file a
complaint with the Atlanta Police Department. Some folks in the office said I should explain
in my complaint that I was a civil rights attorney working on police misconduct cases. It
seemed to me that no one should need those kinds of credentials to complain about
misconduct by police officers.
I started writing my complaint determined not to reveal that I was an attorney. When I
replayed the whole incident in my mind, what bothered me most was the moment when the
officer drew his weapon and I thought about running. I was a twenty-eight-year-old lawyer
who had worked on police misconduct cases. I had the judgment to speak calmly to the
officer when he threatened to shoot me. When I thought about what I would have done when
I was sixteen years old or nineteen or even twenty-four, I was scared to realize that I might
have run. The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became about all the young
black boys and men in that neighborhood. Did they know not to run? Did they know to stay
calm and say, â€œItâ€™s okayâ€?
I detailed all of my concerns. I found Bureau of Justice statistics reporting that black men
were eight times more likely to be killed by the police than whites. By the end of the
twentieth century the rate of police shootings would improve so that men of color were
â€œonlyâ€ four times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, but the problem would get
worse as some states passed â€œStand Your Groundâ€ laws empowering armed citizens to use
lethal force as well.
I kept writing my memo to the Atlanta Police Department and before I knew it I had typed
close to nine pages outlining all the things I thought had gone wrong. For two pages I
detailed the completely illegal search of the vehicle and the absence of probable cause. I even
cited about a half-dozen cases. I read over the complaint and realized that I had done
everything but say, â€œIâ€™m a lawyer.â€
I filed my complaint with the police department and tried to forget about the incident, but I
couldnâ€™t. I kept thinking about what had happened. I began to feel embarrassed that I hadnâ€™t
asserted more control during the encounter. I hadnâ€™t told the officers I was a lawyer or
informed them that what they were doing was illegal. Should I have said more to them?
Despite the work Iâ€™d done assisting people on death row, I questioned how prepared I was to
do really difficult things. I even started having second thoughts about going to Alabama to
start a law office. I couldnâ€™t stop thinking about how at risk young kids are when they get
stopped by the police.
My complaint made it through the review process at the Atlanta Police Department. Every
few weeks Iâ€™d get a letter explaining that the police officers had done nothing wrong and that
police work is very difficult. I appealed these dismissals unsuccessfully up the chain of
command. Finally, I requested a meeting with the chief of police and the police officers who
had stopped me. This request was denied, but the deputy chief met with me. I had asked for
an apology and suggested training to prevent similar incidents. The deputy chief nodded
politely as I explained what had happened. When I finished, he apologized to me, but I
suspected that he just wanted me to leave. He promised that the officers would be required to
do some â€œextra homework on community relations.â€ I didnâ€™t feel vindicated.
My caseload was getting crazy. The lawyers defending the Gadsden City Jail finally
acknowledged that Mr. Ruffinâ€™s rights had been violated and that he had been illegally denied
his asthma medicine. We won a decent settlement for Mr. Ruffinâ€™s family, so they would at
least receive some financial help. I turned the other police misconduct cases over to other
lawyers because my death penalty docket was so full.
I had no time to make war with the Atlanta Police when I had clients facing execution.
Still, I couldnâ€™t stop thinking about how dangerous and unfair the situation was and how Iâ€™d
done nothing wrong. And what if I had had drugs in my car? I would have been arrested and
then would have needed to convince my attorney to believe me when I explained that the
police had entered the car illegally. Would I get an attorney who would take such a claim
seriously? Would a judge believe that Iâ€™d done nothing wrong? Would they believe someone
who was just like me but happened not to be a lawyer? Someone like me who was
unemployed or had a prior criminal record?
I decided to talk to youth groups, churches, and community organizations about the
challenges posed by the presumption of guilt assigned to the poor and people of color. I spoke
at local meetings and tried to sensitize people to the need to insist on accountability from law
enforcement. I argued that police could improve public safety without abusing people. Even
when I was in Alabama, I made time for talks at community events whenever anyone asked.
I was in a poor rural county in Alabama after another trip to pull records in a death penalty
case when I was invited to speak at a small African American church. Only about two dozen
people showed up. One of the community leaders introduced me, and I went to the front of
the church and began my talk about the death penalty, increasing incarceration rates, abuse
of power within prisons, discriminatory law enforcement, and the need for reform. At one
point, I decided to talk about my encounter with the police in Atlanta, and I realized that I
was getting a bit emotional. My voice got shaky, and I had to rein myself in to finish my
During the talk, I noticed an older black man in a wheelchair who had come in just before
the program started. He was in his seventies and was wearing an old brown suit. His gray
hair was cut short with unruly tufts here and there. He looked at me intensely throughout my
presentation but showed no emotion or reaction during most of the talk. His focused stare
was unnerving. A young boy who was about twelve had wheeled him into the church,
probably his grandson or a relative. I noticed that the man occasionally directed the boy to
fetch things for him. He would wordlessly nod his head, and the boy seemed to know that the
man wanted a fan or a hymnal.
After I finished speaking, the group sang a hymn to end the session. The older man didnâ€™t
sing but simply closed his eyes and sat back in his chair. After the program, people came up
to me; most folks were very kind and expressed appreciation for my having taken the time to
come and talk to them. Several young black boys walked up to shake my hand. I was pleased
that people seemed to value the information I shared. The man in the wheelchair was waiting
in the back of the church. He was still staring at me. When everyone else had left, he nodded
to the young boy, who quickly wheeled him up to me.
The manâ€™s expression never changed as he approached me. He stopped in front of me,
leaned forward in his wheelchair, and said forcefully, â€œDo you know what youâ€™re doing?â€ He
looked very serious, and he wasnâ€™t smiling.
His question threw me. I couldnâ€™t tell what he was really asking or whether he was being
hostile. I didnâ€™t know what to say. He then wagged his finger at me, and asked again. â€œDo you
know what youâ€™re doing?â€
I tried to smile to diffuse the situation but I was completely baffled. â€œI think so.â€¦â€
He cut me off and said loudly, â€œIâ€™ll tell you what youâ€™re doing. Youâ€™re beating the drum for
justice!â€ He had an impassioned look on his face. He said it again emphatically, â€œYouâ€™ve got
to beat the drum for justice.â€
He leaned back in his chair, and I stopped smiling. Something about what he said had
sobered me. I answered him softly, â€œYes, sir.â€
He leaned forward again and said hoarsely, â€œYouâ€™ve got to keep beating the drum for
justice.â€ He gestured and after a long while said again, â€œBeat the drum for justice.â€
He leaned back, and in an instant he seemed tired and out of breath. He looked at me
sympathetically and waved me closer. I did so, and he pulled me by the arm and leaned
forward. He spoke very quietly, almost a whisper, but with a fierceness that was
â€œYou see this scar on the top of my head?â€ He tilted his head to show me. â€œI got that scar in
Greene County, Alabama, trying to register to vote in 1964. You see this scar on the side of
my head?â€ He turned his head to the left and I saw a four-inch scar just above his right ear. â€œI
got that scar in Mississippi demanding civil rights.â€
His voice grew stronger. He tightened his grip on my arm and lowered his head some more.
â€œYou see that mark?â€ There was a dark circle at the base of his skull. â€œI got that bruise in
Birmingham after the Childrenâ€™s Crusade.â€
He leaned back and looked at me intensely. â€œPeople think these are my scars, cuts, and
For the first time I noticed that his eyes were wet with tears. He placed his hands on his
head. â€œThese arenâ€™t my scars, cuts, and bruises. These are my medals of honor.â€
He stared at me for a long moment, wiped his eyes, and nodded to the boy, who wheeled
I stood there with a lump in my throat, staring after him.
After a moment, I realized that the time to open the Alabama office had come.
Trials and Tribulation
After months of frustration, failure, and growing public scorn, Sheriff Thomas Tate, ABI lead
investigator Simon Benson, and the district attorneyâ€™s investigator, Larry Ikner, decided to
arrest Walter McMillian based primarily on Ralph Myersâ€™s allegation. They hadnâ€™t yet done
much investigation into McMillian, so they decided to arrest him on a pretextual charge while
they built their case. Myers claimed to be terrified of McMillian; one of the officers suggested
to Myers that McMillian might have sexually assaulted him; the idea was so provocative and
inflammatory that Myers immediately recognized its usefulness and somberly acknowledged
that it was true. Alabama law had outlawed nonprocreative sex, so officials planned to arrest
McMillian on sodomy charges.
On June 7, 1987, Sheriff Tate led an army of more than a dozen officers to a back-country
road that they knew Walter would use on his return home from work. Officers stopped
Walterâ€™s truck and drew their weapons, then forced Walter from his vehicle and surrounded
him. Tate told him he was under arrest. When Walter frantically asked the sheriff what he
had done, the sheriff told him that he was being charged with sodomy. Confused by the term,
Walter told the sheriff that he did not understand the meaning of the word. When the sheriff
explained the charge in crude terms, Walter was incredulous and couldnâ€™t help but laugh at
the notion. This provoked Tate, who unleashed a torrent of racial slurs and threats. Walter
would report for years that all he heard throughout his arrest, over and over again, was the
word nigger. â€œNigger this,â€ â€œnigger that,â€ followed by insults and threats of lynching.
â€œWeâ€™re going to keep all you niggers from running around with these white girls. I ought to
take you off and hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile,â€ Tate reportedly told Walter.
The sheriff was referring to the lynching of a young African American man named Michael
Donald in Mobile, about sixty miles south. Donald was walking home from the store one
evening, hours after a mistrial was declared in the prosecution of a black man accused of
shooting a white police officer. Many white people were shocked by the verdict and blamed
the mistrial on the African Americans who had been permitted to serve on the jury. After
burning a cross on the courthouse lawn, a group of enraged white men who were members of
the Ku Klux Klan went out searching for someone to victimize. They found Donald as he was
walking home and descended on him. After severely beating the young black man, they
hanged him from a nearby tree, where his lifeless body was discovered several hours later.
Local police ignored the obvious evidence that the death was a hate crime and
hypothesized that Donald must have been involved in drug dealing, which his mother
adamantly denied. Outraged by the lack of local law enforcement interest in the case, the
black community and civil rights activists persuaded the United States Department of Justice
to get involved. Three white men were arrested two years later and details of the lynching
were finally made public.
It had been more than three years since the arrests, but when Tate and the other officers
started making threats of lynching, Walter was terrified. He was also confused. They said he
was being arrested for raping another man, but they were throwing questions at him about
the murder of Ronda Morrison. Walter vehemently denied both allegations. When it became
clear that the officers would get no help from Walter in making a case against him, they
locked him up and proceeded with their investigation.
When Monroe County District Attorney Ted Pearson first heard his investigatorsâ€™ evidence
against Walter McMillian, he must have been disappointed. Ralph Myersâ€™s story of the crime
was pretty far-fetched; his knack for dramatic embellishment made even the most basic
allegations unnecessarily complicated.
Hereâ€™s Myersâ€™s account of the murder of Ronda Morrison: On the day of the murder, Myers
was getting gas when Walter McMillian saw him at the gas station and forced him at
gunpoint to get in Walterâ€™s truck and drive to Monroeville. Myers didnâ€™t really know Walter
before that day. Once in the truck, Walter told Myers he needed him to drive because
Walterâ€™s arm was hurt. Myers protested but had no choice. Walter directed Myers to drive
him to Jackson Cleaners in downtown Monroeville and instructed him to wait in the truck
while McMillian went inside alone. After waiting a long time, Myers drove down the street to
a grocery store to buy cigarettes. He returned ten minutes later. After another long wait,
Myers finally saw McMillian emerge from the store and return to the truck. Upon entering the
truck, he admitted that he had killed the store clerk. Myers then drove McMillian back to the
gas station so that Myers could retrieve his vehicle. Before Myers left, Walter threatened to
kill him if he ever told anyone what he had seen or done.
In summary, an African American man planning a robbery-murder in the heart of
Monroeville in the middle of the day stops at a gas station and randomly selects a white man
to become his accomplice by asking him to drive him to and from the crime scene because his
arm is injured, even though he had been able to drive himself to the gas station where he
encountered Myers and to drive his truck home after returning Myers to the gas station.
Law enforcement officers knew that Myersâ€™s story would be very difficult to prove, so they
arrested Walter for sodomy, which served to shock the community and further demonize
McMillian; it also gave police an opportunity to bring Walterâ€™s truck to the jail for Bill Hooks,
a jailhouse informant, to see.
Bill Hooks was a young black man with a reputation as a jailhouse snitch. He had been in
the county jail for several days on burglary charges when McMillian was arrested. Hooks was
promised release from jail and reward money if he could connect McMillianâ€™s truck to the
Morrison murder. Hooks eagerly told investigators that he had driven by Jackson Cleaners
near the time of the crime and had seen a truck tear away from the cleaners with two men
inside. At the jail, Hooks positively identified Walterâ€™s truck as the one heâ€™d seen at the
cleaners nearly six months earlier.
This second witness gave law enforcement officials what they needed to charge Walter
McMillian with capital murder in the shooting death of Ronda Morrison.
When the indictment was announced, there was joy and relief in the community that
someone had been charged. Sheriff Tate, the district attorney, and other law enforcement
officers who had become targets of criticism were cheered. The absence of an arrest had
disrupted life in Monroeville, and now things could settle down.
People who knew Walter found it difficult to believe he could be responsible for a
sensational murder. He had no history of crime or violence, and for most folks who knew
him, robbery just didnâ€™t make sense for a man who worked as hard as Walter.
Black residents told Sheriff Tate that he had arrested the wrong man. Tate still had not
investigated McMillian himself, his life or background, or even his whereabouts on the day of
the murder. He knew about the affair with Karen Kelly and had heard the suspicion and
rumors that Walterâ€™s independence must mean he was dealing drugs. Given his eagerness to
make an arrest, this seemed to be enough for Tate to accept Myersâ€™s accusations. As it turned
out, on the day of the murder, a fish fry was held at Walterâ€™s house. Members of Walterâ€™s
family spent the day out in front of the house, selling food to passersby. Evelyn Smith,
Walterâ€™s sister, was a local minister, and she and her family occasionally raised money for the
church by selling food on the roadside. Because Walterâ€™s house was closer to the main road,
they often sold from his front yard. There were at least a dozen church parishioners at the
house all morning with Walter and his family on the day Ronda Morrison was murdered.
Walter didnâ€™t have a tree job that day. He had decided to replace the transmission in his
truck and called over his mechanic friend, Jimmy Hunter, to help. By 9:30 in the morning,
the two men had dismantled Walterâ€™s truck, completely removing the transmission. By 11
oâ€™clock, relatives had arrived and had started frying fish and other food to sell. Some church
members didnâ€™t get there until later.
â€œSister, we would have been here long ago, but the traffic in Monroeville was completely
backed up. Cop cars and fire trucks, looked like something bad happened up at that cleaners,â€
Evelyn Smith recalled one of the members saying.
Police reported that the Morrison murder took place around 10:15 A.M., eleven miles or so
from McMillianâ€™s home, at the same time that a dozen church members were at Walterâ€™s
home selling food while Walter and Jimmy worked on his truck. In the early afternoon,
Ernest Welch, a white man whom black residents called â€œthe furniture manâ€ because he
worked for a local furniture store, arrived to collect money from Walterâ€™s mother for a
purchase she had made on credit. Welch told the folks gathered at the house that his niece
had been murdered at Jackson Cleaners that morning. They discussed the shocking news with
Welch for some time.
Taking into account the church members, Walterâ€™s family, and the people who were
constantly stopping at the house to buy sandwiches, dozens of people were able to confirm
that Walter could not have committed the murder. That group included a police officer who
stopped by the house to buy a sandwich and noted in his police log that he had bought food
at McMillianâ€™s house with Walter and a crowd of church folks present.
Based on their personal knowledge of Walterâ€™s whereabouts at the time of the Morrison
murder, family members, church members, black pastors, and others all pleaded with Sheriff
Tate to release McMillian. Tate wouldnâ€™t do it. The arrest had been too long in the making to
admit yet another failure. After some discussion, the district attorney, the sheriff, and the ABI
investigator agreed to stick with the McMillian accusation.
Walterâ€™s alibi wasnâ€™t the only problem for law enforcement. Ralph Myers began to have
second thoughts about his allegations against McMillian. He was also facing indictment in the
Morrison murder. Heâ€™d been promised that he wouldnâ€™t get the death penalty and would get
favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony, but it was starting to dawn on him that
admitting to involvement in a high-profile murder that he actually had nothing to do with
was probably not smart.
A few days before the capital murder charges against McMillian were made public, Myers
summoned police investigators and told them his allegations against McMillian werenâ€™t true.
At this point, Tate and his investigators had little interest in Myersâ€™s recantation. Instead, they
decided to pressure Myers to produce more incriminating details. When Myers protested that
he didnâ€™t have more incriminating details because, well, the story wasnâ€™t true, the
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