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This assignment requests that you personally reflect on Stevenson’s book,

Just Mercy.

This personal reflection is up to you, but you can discuss how it has affected your thinking on criminal justice issues such as mass incarceration, the death penalty, the racial bias of the criminal justice system, the treatment of juvenile offenders, etc. Please note: you do not need to cover multiple issues. These topics were just given as examples. You do have a lot of free reign in this paper to focus on what speaks to you personally. In addition, you must discuss how can we reform the criminal justice system in this country.

our society,
ne incarcerated has persuaded
wealth; the opposite of povert
hat the true measure of Our
our commitment
cannot be measured by how
leged, and the respected amon
ed, and the condemned.
Er is how we treat the poor, the
Chapter One
other people to be mistreati
the decency of a communia
Mockingbird Players
ake us vindictive and abusive
the absence of mercy and me
hize others. The closer we get
s of punishment, the more
e all need mercy, we all need
measure of unmerited
grace.
he temporary receptionist was an elegant African American
woman wearing a dark, expensive business suit-a well-dressed
exception to the usual crowd at the Southern Prisoners Defense Com-
mittee (SPDC) in Atlanta, where I had returned after graduation to
work full time. On her first day, I’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 experi-
enced 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 “real law office.” I wished her luck.
An hour later, she called my office to tell me that “Robert E. Lee” was
on the phone. I smiled, pleased that I’d misjudged her; she clearly had
a sense of humor.
“That’s really funny.”
“I’m not joking. That’s what he said,” she said, sounding bored, not
playful. “Line two.
وز
our society,
ne incarcerated has persuaded
wealth; the opposite of povert
hat the true measure of Our
our commitment
cannot be measured by how
leged, and the respected amon
ed, and the condemned.
Er is how we treat the poor, the
Chapter One
other people to be mistreati
the decency of a communia
Mockingbird Players
ake us vindictive and abusive
the absence of mercy and me
hize others. The closer we get
s of punishment, the more
e all need mercy, we all need
measure of unmerited
grace.
he temporary receptionist was an elegant African American
woman wearing a dark, expensive business suit-a well-dressed
exception to the usual crowd at the Southern Prisoners Defense Com-
mittee (SPDC) in Atlanta, where I had returned after graduation to
work full time. On her first day, I’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 experi-
enced 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 “real law office.” I wished her luck.
An hour later, she called my office to tell me that “Robert E. Lee” was
on the phone. I smiled, pleased that I’d misjudged her; she clearly had
a sense of humor.
“That’s really funny.”
“I’m not joking. That’s what he said,” she said, sounding bored, not
playful. “Line two.
وز
picked up
the line.
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 21
2.
County.”
on me.
year at the
try,
I
“Hello, this is Bryan Stevenson. May I help you?”
to represent someone like Walter McMillian? Do you know he’s
“Bryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you
puted to be one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Alabama
“Well, I’m also not going to appoint you because I don’t think he’s
got your notice entering an appearance, but you don’t want ant
indigent. He’s reported to have money buried all over Monroe
to do with this case.”
“Judge, I’m not seeking appointment. I’ve told Mr. McMillian that
we would ” The dial tone interrupted my first affirmative statement
“Sir?”
“This is Judge Key, and you don’t want to have anything to do w
of the phone call. I spent several minutes thinking we’d been acciden-
this McMillian case. No one really understands how depraved the
tally disconnected before finally realizing that a judge had just hung up
situation truly is, including me, but I know it’s ugly. These men mit
even be Dixie Mafia.”
The lecturing tone and bewildering phrases from a judge I’d neve
fourth
I was in my late twenties and about to start my
met left me completely confused. “Dixie Mafia”? I’d met Waltz
SPDC when I met Walter McMillian. His case was one of the flood of
McMillian two weeks earlier, after spending a day on death row
cases I’d found myself frantically working on after learning of a grow-
ing crisis in Alabama. The state had nearly a hundred people on death
begin work on five capital cases. I hadn’t reviewed the trial trace
row as well as the fastest-growing condemned population in the coun-
but it also had no public defender system, which meant that large
yet, but I did remember that the judge’s last name was
had told me the Robert E. Lee part. I struggled for an image of “Die
numbers of death row prisoners had no legal representation of any
kind. My friend Eva Ansley ran an Alabama prison project, which
Mafia” that would fit Walter McMillian.
tracked cases and matched lawyers with the condemned men. In 1988,
“Dixie Mafia’?”
we discovered an opportunity to get federal funding to create a legal
“Yes, and there’s no telling what else. Now, son, I’m just not going center that could represent people on death row. The plan was to use
to appoint some out-of-state lawyer who’s not a member of the Ale
that funding to start a new nonprofit. We hoped to open it in Tusca-
loosa and begin working on cases in the next year. I’d already worked
bama bar to take on one of these death penalty cases, so you just go
on lots of death penalty cases in several Southern states, sometimes
ahead and withdraw.”
winning a stay of execution just minutes before an electrocution was
“I’m a member of the Alabama bar.”
scheduled. But I didn’t think I was ready to take on the responsibilities
I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, but I had been admitted to the Alabios
of running a nonprofit law office. I planned to help get the organiza-
bar a year earlier after working on some cases in Alabama concerning
tion off the ground, find a director, and then return to Atlanta.
When I’d visited death row a few weeks before that call from Rob-
jail and prison conditions.
ert E. Lee Key, I met with five desperate condemned men: Willie Tabb,
“Well, I’m now sitting in Mobile. I’m not up in Monroeville 2017
more. If we have a hearing on your motion, you’re going tobar
Vernon Madison, Jesse Morrison, Harry Nicks, and Walter McMillian.
come all the way from Atlanta to Mobile. I’m not going to accomm
date you no kind of way.”
“I understand, sir. I can come to Mobile, if necessary.
Key. No One
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.
22 JUST MERCY
can
a beata
But I remembered Walter. He was at least fifteen
not particularly well educated, and he hailed from a small
years older the
munity. The memorable thing about him was how insistenthe
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 23
that he’d been wrongly convicted.
“Mr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but it’s importa
me that you know that I’m innocent and didn’t do what they
not no kinda way,” he told me in the meeting room. His voice
Even though he had lived in Monroe County his whole life, Walter
McMillian had never heard of Harper Lee or To Kill a Mockingbird.
level but laced with emotion. I nodded to him. I had learned to
Monroeville, Alabama, celebrated its native daughter Lee shamelessly
what clients tell me until the facts suggest something else.
after her award-winning book became a national bestseller in the
“Sure, of course I understand. When I review the record
1960s. She returned to Monroe County but secluded herself and was
better sense of what evidence they have, and we can talk abou.
rarely seen in public. Her reclusiveness proved no barrier to the coun-
ty’s continued efforts to market her literary classic–or to market it-
“But … look, I’m sure I’m not the first person on death Tomi
self by using the book’s celebrity. Production of the film adaptation
you that they’re innocent, but I really need you to believe me
brought Gregory Peck to town for the infamous courtroom scenes;
has been ruined! This lie they put on me is more than I
his performance won him an Academy Award. Local leaders later
turned the old courthouse into a “Mockingbird” museum. A group of
if I don’t get help from someone who believes me”
locals formed “The Mockingbird Players of Monroeville” to present a
His lip began to quiver, and he clenched his fists to stop his
stage version of the story. The production was so popular that na-
from crying. I sat quietly while he forced himself back into co
tional and international tours were organized to provide an authentic
presentation of the fictional story to audiences everywhere.
sure.
Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of
“I’m sorry, I know you’ll do everything you can to help
the book took no root. The story of an innocent black man bravely
said, his voice quieter. My instinct was to comfort him; his painst
defended by a white lawyer in the 1930s fascinated millions of readers,
so sincere. But there wasn’t much I could do, and after several ho
despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations of rape in-
on the row talking to so many people, I could muster only ear
volving a white woman. Lee’s endearing characters, Atticus Finch and
energy to reassure him that I would look at everything carefully
,
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 coura-
geous Atticus, who at one point arms himself to protect the defense-
I had several transcripts piled up in my small Atlanta office reat
less black suspect from an angry mob of white men looking to lynch
move to Tuscaloosa once the office opened. With Judge Robert El
him.
Key’s peculiar comments still running through my head
, Ik
Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fic-
through the mound of records until I found the transcripts from
tional lawyer’s name to celebrate the model of advocacy described in
ter McMillian’s trial. There were only four volumes of trial proc.
Lee’s novel. What is often overlooked is that the black man falsely ac-
ings, which meant that the trial had been short. The judge’s dram
cused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. Tom Rob-
warnings now made Mr. McMillian’s emotional claim of innor
inson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he
too intriguing to put
off
me
any longer. I started reading
our society,
ne incarcerated has persuaded
wealth; the opposite of povert
hat the true measure of Our
our commitment
cannot be measured by how
leged, and the respected amon
ed, and the condemned.
Er is how we treat the poor, the
Chapter One
other people to be mistreati
the decency of a communia
Mockingbird Players
ake us vindictive and abusive
the absence of mercy and me
hize others. The closer we get
s of punishment, the more
e all need mercy, we all need
measure of unmerited
grace.
he temporary receptionist was an elegant African American
woman wearing a dark, expensive business suit-a well-dressed
exception to the usual crowd at the Southern Prisoners Defense Com-
mittee (SPDC) in Atlanta, where I had returned after graduation to
work full time. On her first day, I’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 experi-
enced 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 “real law office.” I wished her luck.
An hour later, she called my office to tell me that “Robert E. Lee” was
on the phone. I smiled, pleased that I’d misjudged her; she clearly had
a sense of humor.
“That’s really funny.”
“I’m not joking. That’s what he said,” she said, sounding bored, not
playful. “Line two.
وز
our society,
ne incarcerated has persuaded
wealth; the opposite of povert
hat the true measure of Our
our commitment
cannot be measured by how
leged, and the respected amon
ed, and the condemned.
Er is how we treat the poor, the
Chapter One
other people to be mistreati
the decency of a communia
Mockingbird Players
ake us vindictive and abusive
the absence of mercy and me
hize others. The closer we get
s of punishment, the more
e all need mercy, we all need
measure of unmerited
grace.
he temporary receptionist was an elegant African American
woman wearing a dark, expensive business suit-a well-dressed
exception to the usual crowd at the Southern Prisoners Defense Com-
mittee (SPDC) in Atlanta, where I had returned after graduation to
work full time. On her first day, I’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 experi-
enced 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 “real law office.” I wished her luck.
An hour later, she called my office to tell me that “Robert E. Lee” was
on the phone. I smiled, pleased that I’d misjudged her; she clearly had
a sense of humor.
“That’s really funny.”
“I’m not joking. That’s what he said,” she said, sounding bored, not
playful. “Line two.
وز
22 JUST MERCY
can
a beata
But I remembered Walter. He was at least fifteen
not particularly well educated, and he hailed from a small
years older the
munity. The memorable thing about him was how insistenthe
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 23
that he’d been wrongly convicted.
“Mr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but it’s importa
me that you know that I’m innocent and didn’t do what they
not no kinda way,” he told me in the meeting room. His voice
Even though he had lived in Monroe County his whole life, Walter
McMillian had never heard of Harper Lee or To Kill a Mockingbird.
level but laced with emotion. I nodded to him. I had learned to
Monroeville, Alabama, celebrated its native daughter Lee shamelessly
what clients tell me until the facts suggest something else.
after her award-winning book became a national bestseller in the
“Sure, of course I understand. When I review the record
1960s. She returned to Monroe County but secluded herself and was
better sense of what evidence they have, and we can talk abou.
rarely seen in public. Her reclusiveness proved no barrier to the coun-
ty’s continued efforts to market her literary classic–or to market it-
“But … look, I’m sure I’m not the first person on death Tomi
self by using the book’s celebrity. Production of the film adaptation
you that they’re innocent, but I really need you to believe me
brought Gregory Peck to town for the infamous courtroom scenes;
has been ruined! This lie they put on me is more than I
his performance won him an Academy Award. Local leaders later
turned the old courthouse into a “Mockingbird” museum. A group of
if I don’t get help from someone who believes me”
locals formed “The Mockingbird Players of Monroeville” to present a
His lip began to quiver, and he clenched his fists to stop his
stage version of the story. The production was so popular that na-
from crying. I sat quietly while he forced himself back into co
tional and international tours were organized to provide an authentic
presentation of the fictional story to audiences everywhere.
sure.
Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of
“I’m sorry, I know you’ll do everything you can to help
the book took no root. The story of an innocent black man bravely
said, his voice quieter. My instinct was to comfort him; his painst
defended by a white lawyer in the 1930s fascinated millions of readers,
so sincere. But there wasn’t much I could do, and after several ho
despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations of rape in-
on the row talking to so many people, I could muster only ear
volving a white woman. Lee’s endearing characters, Atticus Finch and
energy to reassure him that I would look at everything carefully
,
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 coura-
geous Atticus, who at one point arms himself to protect the defense-
I had several transcripts piled up in my small Atlanta office reat
less black suspect from an angry mob of white men looking to lynch
move to Tuscaloosa once the office opened. With Judge Robert El
him.
Key’s peculiar comments still running through my head
, Ik
Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fic-
through the mound of records until I found the transcripts from
tional lawyer’s name to celebrate the model of advocacy described in
ter McMillian’s trial. There were only four volumes of trial proc.
Lee’s novel. What is often overlooked is that the black man falsely ac-
ings, which meant that the trial had been short. The judge’s dram
cused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. Tom Rob-
warnings now made Mr. McMillian’s emotional claim of innor
inson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he
too intriguing to put
off
me
any longer. I started reading
picked up
the line.
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 21
2.
County.”
on me.
year at the
try,
I
“Hello, this is Bryan Stevenson. May I help you?”
to represent someone like Walter McMillian? Do you know he’s
“Bryan, this is Robert E. Lee Key. Why in the hell would you
puted to be one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Alabama
“Well, I’m also not going to appoint you because I don’t think he’s
got your notice entering an appearance, but you don’t want ant
indigent. He’s reported to have money buried all over Monroe
to do with this case.”
“Judge, I’m not seeking appointment. I’ve told Mr. McMillian that
we would ” The dial tone interrupted my first affirmative statement
“Sir?”
“This is Judge Key, and you don’t want to have anything to do w
of the phone call. I spent several minutes thinking we’d been acciden-
this McMillian case. No one really understands how depraved the
tally disconnected before finally realizing that a judge had just hung up
situation truly is, including me, but I know it’s ugly. These men mit
even be Dixie Mafia.”
The lecturing tone and bewildering phrases from a judge I’d neve
fourth
I was in my late twenties and about to start my
met left me completely confused. “Dixie Mafia”? I’d met Waltz
SPDC when I met Walter McMillian. His case was one of the flood of
McMillian two weeks earlier, after spending a day on death row
cases I’d found myself frantically working on after learning of a grow-
ing crisis in Alabama. The state had nearly a hundred people on death
begin work on five capital cases. I hadn’t reviewed the trial trace
row as well as the fastest-growing condemned population in the coun-
but it also had no public defender system, which meant that large
yet, but I did remember that the judge’s last name was
had told me the Robert E. Lee part. I struggled for an image of “Die
numbers of death row prisoners had no legal representation of any
kind. My friend Eva Ansley ran an Alabama prison project, which
Mafia” that would fit Walter McMillian.
tracked cases and matched lawyers with the condemned men. In 1988,
“Dixie Mafia’?”
we discovered an opportunity to get federal funding to create a legal
“Yes, and there’s no telling what else. Now, son, I’m just not going center that could represent people on death row. The plan was to use
to appoint some out-of-state lawyer who’s not a member of the Ale
that funding to start a new nonprofit. We hoped to open it in Tusca-
loosa and begin working on cases in the next year. I’d already worked
bama bar to take on one of these death penalty cases, so you just go
on lots of death penalty cases in several Southern states, sometimes
ahead and withdraw.”
winning a stay of execution just minutes before an electrocution was
“I’m a member of the Alabama bar.”
scheduled. But I didn’t think I was ready to take on the responsibilities
I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, but I had been admitted to the Alabios
of running a nonprofit law office. I planned to help get the organiza-
bar a year earlier after working on some cases in Alabama concerning
tion off the ground, find a director, and then return to Atlanta.
When I’d visited death row a few weeks before that call from Rob-
jail and prison conditions.
ert E. Lee Key, I met with five desperate condemned men: Willie Tabb,
“Well, I’m now sitting in Mobile. I’m not up in Monroeville 2017
more. If we have a hearing on your motion, you’re going tobar
Vernon Madison, Jesse Morrison, Harry Nicks, and Walter McMillian.
come all the way from Atlanta to Mobile. I’m not going to accomm
date you no kind of way.”
“I understand, sir. I can come to Mobile, if necessary.
Key. No One
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.
24 JUST MERCY
poor
can
were info
they were old en
America
dies when, full of despair, he makes a desperate attempt
from prison. He is shot seventeen times in the back
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 25
dying ingloriously but not unlawfully
.
Walter McMillian, like Tom Robinson, grew up in
black settlements outside of Monroeville, where he
this period. Across the Black Belt, more and more acres were con-
verted to growing pine trees for paper mills and industrial uses. Afri-
fields with his family before he was old enough to attends
Americans, largely excluded from this new industry, found
children of sharecroppers in southern Alabama
themselves confronting new economic challenges even as they won
basic civil rights. The brutal era of sharecropping and Jim Crow was
“plowin’, plantin’, and pickin'” as soon as
ending, but what followed was persistent unemployment and worsen-
useful in the fields. Educational opportunities for blackchilas
1950s were limited, but Walter’s mother got him to the
ing poverty. The region’s counties remained some of the poorest in
“colored school” for a couple of years when he was yuan
Walter was smart enough to see the trend. He started his own pulp-
time Walter was eight or nine, he became too valuable from
wood business that evolved with the timber industry in the 1970s. He
astutely-and bravely-borrowed money to buy his own power saw,
ton to justify the remote advantages of going to school
tractor, and pulpwood truck. By the 1980s, he had developed a solid
eleven, Walter could run a plow as well as any of his older
business that didn’t generate a lot of extra money but afforded him a
Times were changing–for better and for worse. Mom
factory or had had some other unskilled job—the kind that most poor
for the production of cotton. Situated in the coastal plain ti
black people in South Alabama worked—it would invariably mean
west Alabama, the fertile, rich black soil of the area attra
settlers from the Carolinas who amassed very successful pas couldn’t escape the reality of racism, but having his own business in a
and a huge slave population. For decades after the Civil War, growing sector of the economy gave him a latitude that many African
African American population toiled in the fields of the “Bladi!
sharecroppers and tenant farmers, dependent on white back
for survival. In the 1940s, thousands of African Americanské miration, but it also cultivated contempt and suspicion, especially out-
gion as part of the Great Migration and headed mostly to the side of Monroeville’s black community. Walter’s freedom was, for
gratifying degree of independence. If he had worked at the mill or the
had been developed by plantation owners in the ninetes
working for white business owners and dealing with all the racial
stress that that implied in Alabama in the 1970s and 1980s. Walter
Americans did not enjoy.
That independence won Walter some measure of respect and ad-
and West Coast for jobs. Those who remained continued tor
land, but the out-migration of African Americans combin
.
other factors to make traditional agriculture less sustainchi
economic base of the region.
By the 1950s, small cotton farming was becoming increase
some of the white people in town, well beyond what African Ameri-
cans with limited education were able to achieve through legitimate
means. Still, he was pleasant, respectful, generous, and accommodat-
ing, which made him well liked by the people with whom he did busi-
ness, whether black or white.
Walter was not without his flaws. He had long been known as a la-
dies’ man. Even though he had married young and had three children
with his wife, Minnie, it was well known that he was romantically in-
volved with other women. “Tree work” is notoriously demanding and
dangerous. With few ordinary comforts in his life, the attention of
profitable, even with the low-wage labor provided by black be
pers and tenants. The State of Alabama agreed to help white bo
ers in the region transition to timber farming and forest pro
providing extraordinary tax incentives for pulp and paper mu
teen of the state’s sixteen pulp and paper mills were open
28 JUST MERCY
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 29
sex
between white women and black men became
tion throughout the South.
nation of African Americans. Having criminalized interracial sex and
plan to replicate slavery’s racial hierarchy and reestablish the subordi
marriage, states throughout the South would use the laws to justify
the forced sterilization of poor and minority women.
an intense preoccupa-
sponse to interracial romance and a century before Walter and Karen
In the 1880s, a few years before lynching became the standard re
Kelly began their affair, Tony Pace, an African American man, and
and convicted, and both were sentenced to two years in prison for vio
Mary Cox, a white woman, fell in love in Alabama. They were arrested
lating Alabama’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
reviewed the case in 1882. With rhetoric that would be quoted fre.
and Mary to appeal their convictions. The Alabama Supreme Court
quently over the next several decades, Alabama’s highest court af
firmed the convictions, using language that dripped with contempt for
the idea of interracial romance:
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 state’s population was 99.8 percent nonblack.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the United States Supreme Court finally
struck down anti-miscegenation statutes in Loving v. Virginia, but re-
strictions on interracial marriage persisted even after that landmark
ruling. Alabama’s state constitution still prohibited the practice in
1986 when Walter met Karen Kelly. Section 102 of the state constitu-
tion 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.
The evil tendency of the crime (of adultery or fornication) is greater
when committed between persons of the two races. … 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.
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 affair-these weren’t indis-
cretions 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 correspond-
ingly extreme punishments. Hundreds of black men have been
lynched for even unsubstantiated suggestions of such intimacy.
Walter didn’t know the legal history, but like every black man in
The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the Alabama court’s decision
Using “separate but equal” language that previewed the Court’s infa-
mous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson twenty years later, the Court unani
mously upheld Alabama’s restrictions on interracial sex and marriage
and affirmed the prison terms imposed on Tony Pace and Mary Com
Following the Court’s decision, more states passed racial integrity
laws that made it illegal for African Americans, and sometimes Native
Even though the restriction couldn’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 vot-
ers chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it. A 2011 poll of Missis-
sippi Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage,
40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percent are undecided.
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 31
30 JUST MERCY
Two Latino men had been spotted in Monroeville looking for work
the day Ronda Morrison’s body was found, and they became the first
of those lynchings
Police tracked them down in Florida and determined that
suspects.
white
any
person,
owner
any
and lethal response.
or comment could trigger a gruesome
Nearly a dozen people had been lynched in Monroe County alone
Alabama he knew deep in his bones the perils of interracial romance,
place in neighboring counties-and the true power
far exceeded their number. They were acts of terror more than a
interracial social misstep, any unintended slight, any ill-advised look
thing else, inspiring fear that any encounter with a
Walter heard his parents and relatives talk about lynchings when he
a black man from Monroe County, was found hanging from a tree in
was a young child. When he was twelve, the body of Russell Charley
Vredenburgh, Alabama. The lynching of Charley, who was known by
Walter’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 Charley’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.
the two men could not have committed the murder. The former
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 incompe-
tence 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
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 solv-
ing the crime than local officials had. People in Monroeville became
anxious. Local businesses posted rewards offering thousands of dol-
lars for information leading to an arrest. Gun sales, which were always
robust, increased.
sheriff days
A few weeks later, an even more unthinkable act shocked Monroeville
In the late morning of November 1, 1986, Ronda Morrison, the beauti:
ful young daughter of a respected local family, was found dead on the
floor of Monroe Cleaners, the shop where the eighteen-year-old col-
lege 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 ac-
counts without blemish. She was the kind of girl whom the entire
white community embraced as a daughter. The police initially be
lieved that no one from the community, black or white, would have
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 as-
sociate 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
done something so horrific.
32 JUST MERCY
MOCKINGBIRD PLAYERS 33
County.
interrogated Ralph, they encountered a man as
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 didn’t seem to be going anywhere, he
changed his story again and told investigators that he had been in-
volved in the murder of Vickie Pittman along with Karen Kelly and
her black boyfriend, Walter McMillian. But that wasn’t all. He also
told police that McMillian was responsible for the murder of Ronda
Morrison. That assertion attracted the full attention of law enforce-
com-
ment officials
of Vickie Lynn Pittman, a young woman from neighboring Escambia
Police had quick success in investigating the Pittman murder, tap
idly concluding that Ralph Myers had been involved. When the police
plicated as he was physically scarred. He was emotional and frail, and
lation and misdirection. Ralph believed that everything he said had to
he craved attention—his only effective defense was his skill in manipu-
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 func
tioning. 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 Pittmann
der, Myers conceded that he may have played some accidental role but
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 the
up
because the true killer was none other than the
story
elected sheriff of a nearby county.
As outrageous as the claim was, ABI agents appeared to take it seri
ously. 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 Morn:
son. 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 everyone’s attention for
months.
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 interac-
tion. It had been several months since Ronda Morrison’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 wit-
nesses, 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 in-
dicating that the two men had never met. Still, they persisted with the
McMillian theory. Time was passing-seven months, by this time-
and the community was fearful and angry. Criticism was mounting.
They desperately needed an arrest.
Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate did not have much law enforce-
ment experience. By his own description he was “very local 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
McMillian’s relationship with Karen Kelly, it’s likely that the infamous
34 JUST MERCY
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 McMillian-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 evi-
dence enough.
a result of the
Cossip. But there
ept that he was
terracial affair,
even if he had
Chapter Two
e that was evi-
Stand
A
fter spending the first year and a half of my legal career sleeping
on Steve Bright’s living room couch in Atlanta, it was time to
find an apartment of my own. When I’d started working in Atlanta,
staff were scrambling to handle one crisis after another. I was immedi-
ately thrown into litigation with pressing deadlines and didn’t have
time to find a place to live—and my $14,000 annual salary didn’t leave
me with much money for rent-so Steve kindly took me in. Living in
Steve’s small Grant Park duplex allowed me to question him nonstop
about the complex issues and challenges our cases and clients pre-
sented. 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 real-
ized 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 re-
treated to the school gym to play basketball and to try to make sense
of things
38 JUST MERCY
munity. 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 driver’s license. The
police claimed he was reaching for a weapon-no weapon was ever
found—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 child’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 stu-
dent, 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 strug-
gling 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 sud-
denly 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 de-
light 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 quo-
tient. On this late night, not only was my radio working but the sta-
tion was also hosting a retrospective on the music of Sly and the
Family Stone. I’d grown up listening to Sly and found myself rolling
joyfully through the streets of Atlanta to tunes like “Dance to the
Music,” “Everybody Is a Star,” and “Family Affair.”
STAND 39
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 “Hot
Fun in the Summertime.” 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 “Stand!” 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 won-
dered what was going on.
Our section of the street only ran one way. My parked car was fac-
ing in the proper direction; the police car had come down the street in
the wrong direction. I noticed for the first time that it wasn’t an ordi-
nary police cruiser but one of the special Atlanta SWAT cars. The of-
ficers 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 couldn’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 couldn’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 “Stand!” 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 vehi-
cle. I noticed immediately that they weren’t wearing the standard At-
lanta 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
Gian
36 JUST MERCY
STAND 37
a year,
confinement.
the most abusive practices. But a decade later, the rapidly growing
prison population inevitably led to a deterioration in the conditions of
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
get to
row in
in their cells.
Charlie and I found a place near Atlanta’s Inman Park. After a
a rent increase forced us to move to the Virginia Highlands section di
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 we’d yet
found. Because of my growing caseload in Alabama, I didn’t
My plan for a new law project to represent people on death r
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
trying to resolve several prison condition cases I had filed in various
insane hours driving back and forth from Atlanta and simultaneously
Southern states.
Conditions of confinement for prisoners were getting worse every
where. 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
“sweatbox,” a casket-sized hole or a box situated where the inmate
would be forced to endure extreme heat for days or weeks. Some pris-
oners were tortured with electric cattle prods as punishment for viola-
tions of the prison’s rule. Inmates at some facilities would be chained
to “hitching posts,” their arms fastened above their heads in a painful
position where they’d be forced to stand for hours. The practice, which
wasn’t declared unconstitutional until 2002, was one of many degrad-
ing and dangerous punishments imposed on incarcerated people. Ter-
rible food and living conditions were widespread.
The death of forty-two people at the end of the Attica standoff ex-
posed the danger of prison abuse and inhumane conditions. The in-
creased 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
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 viola-
tions. His family maintained that he was beaten by police and jail of-
ficials who then denied him his asthma inhaler and medication despite
his begging for it. I’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 weren’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 in-
mates 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 vio-
lence claimed the lives of hundreds of prisoners every year.
I soon received other complaints from people in the Gadsden com-
3
40 JUST MERCY
that something was wrong with me, I figured I would let them know
that everything was okay. It certainly never occurred to me that
get
ting out of my car was wrong or dangerous.
had started walking toward my vehicle drew his weapon and pointed
As soon as I opened my car door and got out, the police officer who
My first instinct was to run. I quickly decided that wouldn’t be
smart. Then I thought for an instant that maybe these weren’t real
it at me. I must have looked completely bewildered.
police officers
STAND 41
“What are you doing out in the street?”
“I was just listening to the radio.” He placed my hands on the car
and bent me over the back of the vehicle. The SWAT car’s bright spot-
light 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 driver’s license but wouldn’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 wasn’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 hun-
when I didn’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 wouldn’t be eating those M&Ms.
I had not lived at our new address long enough to get a new driver’s
license, so the address on my license didn’t match the new location.
There was no legal requirement to update the driver’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 missing.
“Ask him about my radio and my vacuum cleaner!” Another lady
asked about her cat who had been absent for three days. I kept waiting
“Move and I’ll blow your head off!” The officer shouted the words,
but I couldn’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.
“Put your hands up!” 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 don’t re-
member deciding to speak, I just remember the words coming out:
“It’s all right. It’s okay.”
I’m sure I sounded afraid because I was terrified.
I kept saying the words over and over again. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
Finally I said, “I live here, this is my apartment.”
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: “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
The second officer, who had not drawn his weapon, inched cau-
tiously 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.
“What are you doing out here?” said the second officer, who seemed
older than the one who had drawn his weapon. He sounded angry.
“I live here. I moved into that house down the street just a few
ago. My roommate is inside. You can go ask him.” I hated how
ger
months
afraid I sounded and the way my voice was shaking.
42 JUST MERCY
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: “They don’t
have anything on him.” He sounded disappointed.
I found my nerve and took my hands off the car. “This is so messed
I live here. You shouldn’t have done this. Why did you
The older officer frowned at me. “Someone called about a sus
pected burglar. There have been a lot of burglaries in this neighbor-
hood.” Then he grinned. “We’re going to let you go. You should be
happy,” he said.
do this?”
up
door
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 couldn’t decide whether I should race to
my
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 “suspected
criminal” 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.
“”They never even apologized,” I kept saying. Charlie shared my
outrage but soon fell back asleep. I couldn’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
STAND 43
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, “It’s okay”?
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 “only” four
times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, but the problem
would
get worse as some states passed “Stand Your Ground” laws em-
powering armed citizens to use lethal force as well.
I kept writing my memo to the Atlanta Police Department and be-
fore 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 il-
legal 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, “I’m a lawyer.”
I filed my complaint with the police department and tried to forget
about the incident, but I couldn’t. I kept thinking about what had hap-
pened. I began to feel embarrassed that I hadn’t asserted more control
during the encounter. I hadn’t told the officers I was a lawyer or in-
formed them that what they were doing was illegal. Should I have said
more to them? Despite the work I’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 couldn’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 I’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
STAND 45
sug.
44 JUST MERCY
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
gested training to prevent similar incidents. The deputy chief nodded
politely as I explained what had happened. When I finished, he apolo-
gized to me, but I suspected that he just wanted me to leave. He prom-
ised that the officers would be required to do some “extra homework
on community relations.” I didn’t feel vindicated.
My caseload was getting crazy. The lawyers defending the Gadsden
City Jail finally acknowledged that Mr. Ruffin’s rights had been vio-
lated and that he had been illegally denied his asthma medicine. We
won a decent settlement for Mr. Ruffin’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 cli-
ents facing execution. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about how danger-
ous and unfair the situation was and how I’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 be-
lieve that I’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 orga-
nizations about the challenges posed by the presumption of guilt as-
signed 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 my-
self in to finish my remarks, .
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 didn’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 man’s expression never changed as he approached me. He
stopped in front of me, leaned forward in his wheelchair, and said
forcefully, “Do you know what you’re doing?” He looked very serious,
and he wasn’t smiling.
His question threw me. I couldn’t tell what he was really asking or
whether he was being hostile. I didn’t know what to say. He then
wagged his finger at me, and asked again. “Do you know what you’re
doing?”
.
46 JUST MERCY
“I think so….
I tried to smile to defuse the situation but I was completely baffled.
He cut me off and said loudly, “I’ll tell you what you’re doing.
impassioned look on
his face. He said it again emphatically, “You’ve got to beat the drum for
You’re beating the drum for justice!” He had an
justice.”
He leaned back in his chair, and I stopped smiling. Something about
what he said had sobered me. I answered him softly, “Yes, sir.”
He leaned forward again and said hoarsely, “You’ve got to
beating the drum for justice.” He gestured and after a long while said
keep
Tr
again, “Beat the drum for justice.
He leaned back, and in an instant he seemed tired and out of breath.
fter m
A
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, al-
most a whisper, but with a fierceness that was unforgettable.
“You see this scar on the top of my head?” He tilted his head to
show me. “I got that scar in Greene County, Alabama, trying to regis-
ter to vote in 1964. You see this scar on the side of my head?” He
turned his head to the left and I saw a four-inch scar just above his right
ear. “I got that scar in Mississippi demanding civil rights.”
His voice grew stronger. He tightened his grip on my arm and low-
ered his head some more. “You see that mark?” There was a dark circle
at the base of his skull. “I got that bruise in Birmingham after the
Children’s Crusade.”
Sherif
the district
ter McMill:
93
hadn’t yet
arrest him
claimed to
Myers that
so provoca
its useful
law had
McMilliar
He leaned back and looked at me intensely. “People think these are
my scars, cuts, and bruises.”
For the first time I noticed that his eyes were wet with tears. He
placed his hands on his head. “These aren’t my scars, cuts, and bruises.
These are my medals of honor.”
He stared at me for a long moment, wiped his eyes, and nodded to
the boy, who wheeled him
away.
stood there with a lump in my throat, staring after him.
On Jur
ficers to
return h
their we
him. Tat
the sher
charged
had come.
After a moment, I realized that the time to open the Alabama office
led.
o
ng
on
Chapter Three
for
ut
ep
Trials and Tribulation
id
2.
le е
1-
>
A
fter months of frustration, failure, and growing public scorn,
Sheriff Thomas Tate, ABI lead investigator Simon Benson, and
the district attorney’s investigator, Larry Ikner, decided to arrest Wal-
ter McMillian based primarily on Ralph Myers’s allegation. They
hadn’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 of-
ficers to a back-country road that they knew Walter would use on his
return home from work. Officers stopped Walter’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
TRIALS AND TRIBULATION 49
gations. 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.
48 JUST MERCY
that he did not understand the meaning of the word. When the sheriff
couldn’t help but laugh at the notion. This provoked Tate, who un-
explained the charge in crude terms, Walter was incredulous and
leashed 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. “Nigger this,” “nigger that,” followed by insults and
threats of lynching
“We’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, Tate reportedly told Walter.
The sheriff was referring to the lynching of a young African Amer-
ican 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 alle-
When Monroe County District Attorney Ted Pearson first heard his
investigators’ evidence against Walter McMillian, he must have been
disappointed. Ralph Myers’s story of the crime was pretty far-fetched;
his knack for dramatic embellishment made even the most basic alle-
gations unnecessarily complicated.
Here’s Myers’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 Walter’s
truck and drive to Monroeville. Myers didn’t really know Walter be-
fore that day. Once in the truck, Walter told Myers he needed him to
drive because Walter’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 ve-
hicle. 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 sta-
tion 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
station where he encountered Myers and to drive his truck home after
returning Myers to the gas station.
Law enforcement officers knew that Myers’s story would be very
gas
TRIALS AND TRIBULATION 51
jailhouse
burglary
promised release
50 JUST MERCY
shock the community and further demonize McMillian; it also gave
difficult to prove, so they arrested Walter for sodomy, which served to
police an opportunity to bring Walter’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
snitch. He had been in the county jail for several days on
charges when McMillian was arrested. Hooks was
from jail and reward money if he could connect McMillian’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 Walter’s truck as the one he’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 shoot-
ing death of Ronda Morrison.
Tate to accept Myers’s accusations. As it turned out, on the day of the
murder, a fish fry was held at Walter’s house. Members of Walter’s
family spent the day out in front of the house, selling food to pass-
ersby. Evelyn Smith, Walter’s sister, was a local minister, and she and
her family occasionally raised money for the church by selling food on
the roadside. Because Walter’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 didn’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
Walter’s truck, completely removing the transmission. By 11 o’clock,
relatives had arrived and had started frying fish and other food to sell.
Some church members didn’t get there until later.
“Sister, we would have been here long ago, but the traffic in Monroe-
ville was completely backed up. Cop cars and fire trucks, looked like
something bad happened up at that cleaners,” 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 McMillian’s home, at the same
time that a dozen church members were at Walter’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 “the furniture
man” because he worked for a local furniture store, arrived to collect
money from Walter’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
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 didn’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 back-
ground, or even his whereabouts on the day of the murder. He knew
about the affair with Karen Kelly and had heard the suspicion and ru-
mors that Walter’s independence must mean he was dealing drugs.
Given his eagerness to make an arrest, this seemed to be enough for
shocking news with Welch for some time.
Taking into account the church members, Walter’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
TRIALS AND TRIBULATION 53
felons is almost never done. As is putting someone not yet convicted
of a crime on death row. Even the other death row prisoners were
shocked. Death row is the most restrictive punitive confinement per-
mitted. Prisoners are locked in a small cell by themselves for twenty-
three hours a day. Condemned inmates have limited opportunity for
exercise or visitation and are held in disturbingly close proximity to
the electric chair.
Sheriff Tate drove Walter to Holman Correctional Facility, a short
ride away in Atmore, Alabama. Before the trip, the sheriff again threat-
ened Walter with racial slurs and terrifying plans. It’s unclear how
Tate was able to persuade Holman’s warden to house two pretrial de
tainees on death row, although Tate knew people at the prison from
his days as a probation officer. The transfer of Myers and McMillian
from the county jail to death row took place on August 1, 1987, less
than a month before the scheduled execution of Wayne Ritter.
52 JUST MERCY
stopped by the house to buy a sandwich and noted in his police log
that he had bought food at McMillian’s house with Walter and a crowd
of church folks present.
Based on their personal knowledge of Walter’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 wouldn’t do it. The arrest had been too long in the
making to admit yet another failure. After some discussion, the dis-
trict attorney, the sheriff, and the ABI investigator agreed to stick with
the McMillian accusation.
Walter’s alibi wasn’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.
He’d been promised that he wouldn’t get the death penalty and would
get favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony, but it was start-
ing 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 weren’t true. At this point,
Tate and his investigators had little interest in Myers’s recantation.
Instead, they decided to pressure Myers to produce more incriminat-
ing details. When Myers protested that he didn’t have more incrimi-
nating details because, well, the story wasn’t true, the investigators
weren’t having it. It’s not clear who decided to put both Myers and
McMillian on death row before trial to create additional pressure, but
it was a nearly unprecedented maneuver that proved very effective.
It is illegal to subject pretrial detainees like Walter and Myers to
confinement that constitutes punishment. Pretrial detainees are gen-
erally housed in local jails, where they enjoy more privileges and more
latitude than convicted criminals who are sent to prison. Putting
someone who has not yet been tried in a prison reserved for convicted
When Walter McMillian arrived on Alabama’s death row just ten
years after the modern death penalty was reinstituted an entire com-
munity of condemned men awaited him. Most of the hundred or so
death row prisoners who had been sentenced to execution in Alabama
since capital punishment was restored in 1975 were black, although to
Walter’s surprise nearly 40 percent of them were white. Everyone was
poor,
and
everyone asked him why he was there.
Condemned prisoners on Alabama’s death row unit are housed in
windowless concrete buildings that are notoriously hot and uncom-
fortable. Each death row inmate was placed in a five-by-eight-foot cell
with a metal door, a commode, and a steel bunk. The temperatures in
August consistently reached over 100 degrees for days and sometimes
weeks at a time. Incarcerated men would trap rats, poisonous spiders,
and snakes they found inside the prison to pass the time and to keep
safe. Isolated and remote, most prisoners got few visits and even fewer
privileges.
54 JUST MERCY
TRIALS AND TRIBULATION 55
nicating on an open telephone line to Governor George Wallace to
grant clemency on the grounds that Mr. Evans was being subjected
to cruel and unusual punishment. The request for clemency was de-
years
nied.
Existence at Holman centered on Alabama’s electric chair. The
large wooden chair was built in the 1930s, and inmates had painted it
yellow before attaching its leather straps and electrodes. They called it
“Yellow Mama.” The executions at Holman resumed just a few
before Walter arrived. John Evans and Arthur Jones had recently been
electrocuted in Holman’s execution chamber. Russ Canan, an attor
ney with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta, had
volunteered to represent Evans. Evans filmed what became an after-
school special for kids where he shared the story of his life with school-
At 8:40 P.M., a third charge of electricity, thirty seconds in dura-
tion, was passed through Mr. Evans’s body. At 8:44, the doctors pro-
nounced him dead. The execution of John Evans took fourteen
minutes.
children and urged them to avoid the mistakes he had made
imagined. He
After courts refused to block the Evans execution following multi-
ple appeals, Canan went to the prison to witness the execution at
Evans’s request. It was worse than Russ could have ever
later filed a much-reviewed affidavit describing the entire horrific pro-
cess:
At 8:30 P.M. the first jolt of 1,900 volts of electricity passed through
Mr. Evans’s body. It lasted thirty seconds. Sparks and flames erupted
from the electrode tied to Mr. Evans’s left leg. His body slammed
against the straps holding him in the electric chair and his fist
clenched permanently. The electrode apparently burst from the
strap holding it in place. A large puff of greyish smoke and sparks
poured out from under the hood that covered Mr. Evans’s face. An
overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading
the witness room. Two doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared
that he was not dead.
Walter McMillian knew nothing about any of this before he arrived at
Holman. But with another scheduled execution fast approaching,
condemned prisoners were talking about the electric chair constantly
when Walter arrived. For his first three weeks on Alabama’s death
row, the horrific execution of John Evans was pretty much all he heard
about.
The surreal whirlwind of the preceding weeks had left Walter dev-
astated. After living his whole life free and unrestrained by anyone or
anything, he found himself confined and threatened in a way he could
never have imagined. The intense rage of the arresting officers and
the racist taunts and threats from uniformed police officers who did
not know him were shocking. He saw in the people who arrested him
and processed him at the courthouse, even in other inmates at the jail,
a contempt that he’d never experienced before. He had always been
well liked and gotten along with just about everybody. He genuinely
believed the accusations against him had been a serious misunder-
standing and that once officials talked to his family to confirm his alibi,
he’d be released in a couple of days. When the days turned into weeks,
Walter began to sink into deep despair. His family assured him that the
police would soon let him go, but nothing happened.
His body reacted to the shock of his situation. A lifelong smoker,
Walter tried to smoke to calm his nerves, but at Holman he found the
experience of smoking nauseating and quit immediately. For days he
The electrode on the left leg was refastened. At 8:30 P.M. [sic]
Mr. Evans was administered a second thirty-second jolt of electric-
ity. The stench of burning flesh was nauseating. More smoke ema-
nated from his leg and head. Again, the doctors examined Mr. Evans.
The doctors reported that his heart was still beating, and that he was
still alive.
At that time, I asked the prison commissioner, who was commu-
56 JUST MERCY
TRIALS AND TRIBULATION 57
When Walter, who could barely read or write, failed to file the various
pleadings, writs, motions, and lawsuits the other prisoners had advised
him to file, they blamed him for his predicament.
“Fight for yourself. Don’t trust your lawyer. They can’t put you on
couldn’t taste anything he ate. He couldn’t orient or calm himself.
and then sink into terror upon remembering where he was. Prison of-
When he woke each morning, he would feel normal for a few minutes
ficials had shaved his head and all the hair from his face. Looking in a
The county jails where Walter had been housed before his transfer
were awful. But the small, hot prison cell on Holman’s death row was
far worse. He was used to working outside among the trees with the
scent of fresh pine on the cool breeze. Now he found himself staring
at the bleak walls of death row. Fear and anguish unlike anything he’d
mirror, he didn’t recognize himself.
death row without being convicted.” Walter heard this constantly, but
he couldn’t imagine how to file a pleading in court himself.
“There were days when I couldn’t breathe.” Walter recalled later. “I
hadn’t ever
experienced anything like this before in my life. I was
around all these murderers, and yet it felt like sometimes they were
the only ones trying to help me. I prayed, I read the Bible, and I’d be
lying if I didn’t tell you that I was scared, terrified just about every
ever experienced settled on Walter.
Death row prisoners were constantly advising him, but he had
no
way of knowing whom to believe. The judge had earlier appointed an
attorney to represent him, a white man Walter didn’t trust. His family
raised money to hire the only black criminal lawyers in the region, J. L.
Chestnut and Bruce Boynton from Selma. Chestnut was fiery and had
done a lot of work in the black community to enforce civil rights.
Boynton’s mother, Amelia Boynton Robinson, was a legendary activ
.
ist; Boynton himself had strong civil rights credentials as well.
Despite their collective experience, Chestnut and Boynton failed to
persuade local officials to release Walter and couldn’t prevent his
transfer to Holman. If anything, hiring outside lawyers seemed to pro-
voke Monroe County officials even more. On the trip to Holman, Tate
was furious that McMillian had involved outside counsel; he mocked
Walter for thinking it would make any difference. Although the money
to hire Chestnut and Boynton was raised by family members through
church donations and by financing their meager possessions, local law
enforcement interpreted it as evidence of Walter’s secret money hoard
and double life-confirmation that he wasn’t the innocent black man
he pretended to be.
Walter tried to adjust to Holman, but things only got worse. With
a scheduled execution approaching, people on the row were agitated
and angry. Other prisoners had advised him to take action and file a
federal complaint, since he couldn’t legally be held on death row.
day.”
Ralph Myers was faring no better. He had also been charged with
capital murder in the death of Ronda Morrison, and his refusal to con-
tinue cooperating with law enforcement meant that he was sent to
death row, too. He was placed on a different tier to prevent contact
with McMillian. Whatever advantage Myers thought he could gain by
saying he knew something about the Morrison murder was clearly
gone now. He was depressed and sinking deeper into an emotional
crisis. From the time he was burned as a child, he had always feared
fire, heat, and small spaces. As the prisoners talked more and more
about the details of the Evans’s execution and Wayne Ritter’s impend-
ing execution, Myers became more and more distraught.
On the night of the Ritter execution, Myers was in full crisis, sob-
bing in his cell. There is a tradition on death row in Alabama that, at
the time scheduled for the execution, the condemned prisoners bang
on their cell doors with cups in protest. At midnight, while all the
other prisoners banged away, Myers curled up on the floor in the cor-
ner of his cell, hyperventilating and flinching with each clang he heard.
When the stench of burned flesh that many on the row claimed they
could smell during the execution wafted into his cell, Myers dissolved.
He called Tate the next morning and told him that he would say what-
ever he wanted if he would get him off death row.
Tate initially justified keeping Myers and McMillian on death row
58 JUST MERCY
TRIALS AND TRIBULATION 59
for safety reasons. But Tate immediately picked Myers up and brought
him back to the county jail the day after the Ritter execution. Tate
didn’t appear to discuss with anyone the decision to move Myers
off death row. Ordinarily, the Alabama Department of Corrections
orders or legal filings–and certainly no prison warden could do so on
couldn’t just put people on death row or let them off without court
his own. But nothing about the prosecution of Walter McMillian was
believed Walter McMillian was innocent. But Pearson was confident
he could win a guilty verdict despite the suspect testimony of Ralph
Myers and Bill Hooks and the strong doubts in the black community.
His one
lingering concern may have been a recent United States Su-
preme Court case that threatened a longstanding feature of high-
profile criminal trials in the South: the all-white jury.
turning out to be ordinary.
Once removed from death row and back in Monroe County, Myers
affirmed his initial accusations against McMillian. With Myers back as
the primary witness and Bill Hooks ready to say that he saw Walter’s
truck at the crime scene, the district attorney believed that he could
proceed against McMillian. The case was scheduled for trial in Febru-
ary 1988.
them
Ted Pearson had been the district attorney for nearly twenty years.
He and his family had lived in South Alabama for generations. He
put
knew the local customs, values, and traditions well and had
to good use in the courtroom. He was getting older and had plans to
retire soon, but he hated that his office had been criticized for failing
to solve the Morrison murder more quickly. Pearson was determined
to leave office with a victory and likely saw the prosecution of Walter
McMillian as one of the most important cases of his career.
In 1987, all forty elected district attorneys in Alabama were white,
even though there are sixteen majority-black counties in the state.
When African Americans began to exercise their right to vote in the
1970s, there was deep concern among some prosecutors and judges
about how the racial demographics in some counties would compli-
cate their reelections. Legislators had aligned counties to maintain
white majorities for judicial circuits that included a majority-black
county. Still, Pearson had to be more mindful of the concerns of black
residents than at the beginning of his career-even if that mindfulness
didn’t translate into any substantive changes during his tenure.
Like Tate, Pearson had heard from many black residents that they
When a serious felony case went to trial in a county like Monroe
County, which was 40 percent black, it was not uncommon for prose-
cutors to exclude all African Americans from jury service. In fact,
twenty years after the civil rights revolution, the jury remained an in-
stitution largely unchanged by the legal requirements of racial inte-
gration and diversity. As far back as the 1880s, the Supreme Court
ruled in Strauder v. West Virginia that excluding black people from jury
service was unconstitutional, but juries remained all-white for decades
afterward. In 1945, the Supreme Court upheld a Texas statute that
limited the number of black jurors to exactly one per case. In Deep
South states, jury rolls were pulled from voting rolls, which excluded
African Americans. After the Voting Rights Act passed, court clerks
and judges still kept the jury rolls mostly white through various tactics
designed to undermine the law. Local jury commissions used statu-
tory requirements that jurors be “intelligent and upright” to exclude
African Americans and women.
In the 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that underrepresentation of
racial minorities and women in jury pools was unconstitutional, which
in some communities at least led to black people being summoned to
the courthouse for possible selection as jurors (if not selected). The
Court had repeatedly made clear, though, that the Constitution does
not require that racial minorities and women actually serve onjuries
it only forbids excluding jurors on the basis of race or gender.
For many African Americans, the use of wholly discretionary pe-
remptory strikes to select a jury of twelve remained a serious barrier
60 JUST MERCY
TRIALS AND TRIBULATION 61
rors. Earl McGahee was tried by an all-white jury in Dallas County,
even though the county is 60 percent African American. In Albert Jef-
un-
changed after the Court’s ruling.
tory manner, giving hope
passed.
to serving on a jury. In the mid-1960s, the Court held that using pe.
remptory strikes in a racially discriminatory manner was unconstitu-
tional, but the justices created an evidentiary standard for proving
peremptory strikes in twenty years. The practice of striking all or al-
racial bias that was so high that no one had successfully challenged
most all African American potential jurors continued virtually
So defendants like Walter McMillian, even in counties that were 40
or 50 percent black, frequently found themselves staring at all-white
juries, especially in death penalty cases. Then, in 1986, the Supreme
more directly about using peremptory strikes in a racially discrimina-
Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky that prosecutors could be challenged
to black defendants—and forcing prosecu-
tors to find more creative ways to exclude black jurors.
Walter was learning some of this history as the months
Everyone on death row wanted to advise him, and everyone had a
story to tell. The novelty of a pretrial capital defendant on death row
seemed to motivate other prisoners to get in Walter’s ear every day.
Walter tried to listen politely, but he’d already decided to leave the
lawyering to his lawyers. That didn’t mean that he wasn’t very con-
cerned about what he was hearing from folks on the row, especially
about race and the kind of jury he would get.
Nearly everyone on death row had been tried by an all-white or
nearly all-white jury. Death row prisoner Jesse Morrison told Walter
that his prosecutor in Barbour County had used twenty-one out of
twenty-two peremptory strikes to exclude all the black people in the
jury pool. Vernon Madison from Mobile said that the prosecutor
struck all ten black people qualified for jury service in his case. Willie
Tabb from Lamar County, Willie Williams from Houston County,
Claude Raines from Jefferson County, Gregory Acres from Montgom-
ery County, and Neil Owens from Russell County were among
many black men on death row who had been tried by all-white juries
after prosecutors struck all of the African American prospective ju-
ferson’s case, the prosecutor had organized the list of prospective ju-
rors summoned to court into four groups of roughly twenty-five
people each, identified as “strong,” “medium,” “weak,” and “black.”
All twenty-six black people in the jury pool could be found on the
black” list, and the prosecutors excluded them all. Joe Duncan, Grady
Bankhead, and Colon Guthrie were among some of the white con-
demned prisoners who told a similar story.
District attorney Ted Pearson had to be concerned about the new
Batson decision; he knew veteran civil rights lawyers like Chestnut and
Boynton would not hesitate to object to racially discriminatory jury
selection, even though he wasn’t too worried about Judge Robert E.
Lee Key taking those objections seriously. But the extraordinary pub-
licity surrounding the Morrison murder gave Pearson another idea.
In high-profile cases, it’s fairly standard for defense lawyers to file a
motion to change venue—to move the case from the county where
the crime took place to a different county where there is less pretrial
publicity and sentiment to convict. The motions are almost never
granted, but every now and then an appellate court finds that the at-
mosphere in a county had been so prejudicial that the trial should have
been moved. In Alabama, asking to change venue was an essentially
futile act. Alabama courts had almost never reversed a conviction be-
cause the trial judge had refused to change venue.
When the court scheduled a hearing in October 1987 on pretrial
motions in Walter’s case, Chestnut and Boynton showed up with no
expectation that
any
of their motions would be granted. They were
more focused on preparing for trial, which was scheduled to begin in
February 1988. The pretrial motion hearing was a formality.
Chestnut and Boynton presented their change-of-venue motion.
Pearson stood up and said that due to the extraordinary pretrial cover-
age
of the Morrison murder, he agreed that the trial should be moved.
Judge Key nodded sympathetically; Chestnut, who knew his way
the

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