It has been four years since Stevenson graduated from law school and began working at the SPDC. One day, he receives a phone call from Judge Robert. E Lee Key. On hearing that the judge is named after the Confederate general, Stevenson is amused. Judge Key warns Stevenson not to take on the case of Walter McMillian, who Key claims is “one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Alabama” and a member of the “Dixie Mafia.” Judge Key says he won’t work with a lawyer who isn’t a member of the Alabama Bar Association, and Stevenson assures the judge that he is a member. The judge brings up several unrelated reasons to persuade Stevenson to drop the case. When Stevenson calmly refutes each one, the judge abruptly hangs up.
By choosing to begin with this specific moment and fixate on the judge’s name, Stevenson emphasizes the history of racism in the South and the continued biases of the court system. Stevenson draws attention to the fact that he is receiving a call from a judge named after a confederate general, who is calling to tell him not to represent a black man on death row who has no state-appointed defense. The judge’s insistence on dissuading Bryan reveals his intent to deny Walter any legal representation.
It’s 1988, and Alabama has the country’s fastest-growing prison population, including almost 100 death-row inmates, to whom the state offers no public defense. Because of this, Georgia-based SPDC is barraged with death row cases from Alabama. Stevenson is spending a lot of time in Alabama helping his friend Eva Ansley to found a legal aid project for the growing number of unrepresented death row inmates. One of the many Alabama cases assigned to him is that of Walter McMillian. During their first meeting, Walter stands out to Stevenson because of his insistence that he is innocent of the alleged murder that had placed him on death row. Stevenson writes that he developed the philosophy of believing clients until “the facts suggest something else.”
By placing the facts about Alabama’s fast-growing incarceration rate and high number of death row inmates next to the state’s failure to provide a public defender system, Stevenson portrays a harsh state that renders judgment without acknowledging the rights of those who are judged. This lack of mercy is contrasted with the mercy shown by the SPDC, Eva Ansley and Stevenson through their activism. Stevenson’s philosophy about believing clients further highlights the difference between the views of the state and the views of the activists.
As Stevenson leads into the story of Walter’s life and trial, he begins by discussing Walter’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Monroeville was also the birthplace of Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, the famous novel that features a black man who is falsely accused of rape and the white lawyer who unsuccessfully defends him against an angry white community. Stevenson writes that the town proudly touts Lee’s fame, with local destinations, events, and a theater group named after her. Yet, Stevenson writes that the “harder truths” of racism, white violence, and innocence that are explored in the famous novel “took no root” in Monroeville.
Stevenson highlights the irony of Monroeville as both the setting for Walter’s wrongful conviction and the birthplace of Harper Lee. The similarities between the novel’s plot and the circumstances facing Walter seem glaring. Yet, the town’s resistance toward what Stevenson calls the “harder truths” of the novel demonstrates the deeply ingrained nature of racist attitudes. It also speaks to the need for communities to reflect critically on their own institutions in order to overcome systemic racism.
Monroeville’s economy was built through slave labor on cotton plantations before the Civil War. During the Jim Crow era, white landowners relied on underpaid black sharecroppers. Eventually, as the cotton industry declined, the state subsidized the paper mill industry in its place. The shift largely benefited white landowners and left most blacks unemployed. Walter McMillian grew up picking cotton, just like most of the other children in the poor black settlements bordering Monroeville. Walter saw the industry shift and he borrowed money to buy his own logging and paper mill equipment. As a moderately successful businessman, Walter earned a higher social status, as well as some suspicion and jealousy among the white community in Monroeville.
In summarizing the history of racial injustice in Monroeville from an economic perspective, Stevenson highlights the connection between past historical wrongs and modern economic inequality. This provides not only a context for Walter’s life story, but also a context for understanding the racial hierarchy that underlies the events and attitudes surrounding his trial and conviction. By portraying the white community’s suspicions toward Walter’s success, Stevenson alludes to possible motives they may have for targeting Walter later on.
Walter had a history of cheating on his wife, Minnie, with whom he had five children. In 1986, at 43, Walter was involved with a 25-year-old married white woman, Karen Kelly. Even though Karen was already getting a divorce, her relationship with a black man became a public scandal leading to a child custody battle. Walter testified in court, admitting their affair. Having an interracial affair ruined Walter’s good reputation. Stevenson describes the South’s history of hatred toward black men involved with white women. During the post-Reconstruction era, Jim Crow laws outlawed interracial relationships. Even after the U.S. nullified such “anti-miscegenation” laws in the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia case, many states, including Alabama, continued outlawing interracial relationships well into the 1980’s. The community’s response to Walter’s affair terrified him, especially given Monroe County’s lynching history. Walter had been twelve when an acquaintance of his family, Russell Charley, was hanged following suspicions of interracial romance.
Walter’s good reputation with the white community had been dependent on his compliance with racial segregation and hierarchy. Even though Walter and Karen were equal parties in their affair, they faced different consequences based on the public’s attitude toward their race and gender. Karen was at risk of losing her children, meaning that her judgment and morality were called into question. The possible consequences for Walter, however, involved violence and death. The black man is vilified, while the sanity or wholesomeness of the white woman is questioned. The history of lynch mobs betrays not only the historical hatred toward black men, but also the sense of ownership and control over white women.
A few weeks after Walter testifies at Karen Kelly’s custody hearing, the body of Ronda Morrison is found on the floor of Monroe Cleaners. Rhonda was a young white woman from a respected family who was beloved by the local community. Murder is very rare in Monroeville, and the community is shocked. Police track two Latino men who had been traveling through town, but the police realize that these men couldn’t have done it. The community is getting anxious to solve the crime, putting newly elected Sheriff Tom Tate under pressure to find a suspect.
Stevenson sets the tone for the events surrounding the Morrison investigation by portraying the police’s immediate impulse to target racial minorities as suspects. By describing the status of Rhonda Morrison, as well as the pressure on Sherriff Tate to solve the crime, Stevenson shows how the community “needs” a conviction in order to feel closure.
At the same time, Walter is trying to break up with Karen, who has started abusing drugs with her new friend, Ralph Myers. Ralph and Karen are now suspects in the murder of another woman from Escambia County, Vickie Pittman. Stephenson describes Myers as a psychologically troubled, attention-seeking white man with a criminal record who grew up in foster care. Myers initially denies any involvement in the murder, but then gives a series of contradictory statements that accuse different people, including a random black man. When police start to lose interest, Myers offers a confession. He states that he, Karen, and her “black boyfriend” collaborated, not only in killing Vickie Pittman, but that he and Walter also murdered Ronda Morrison. When Myers is unable to identify Walter out of several black men in a grocery store, Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) officials and Sherriff Tate are left with no evidence to support Myer’s statements.
By describing Myers’ desperate attention-seeking tactics, Stevenson depicts him as a compulsive liar. This lays the groundwork for his accusations to be perceived by the reader as false. At the same time, by describing Myers’ personality from the perspective of trauma and mental illness, the author allows some room for empathy for his character. By referring to Walter as Karen’s “black boyfriend,” Myers takes advantage of the police’s inclination toward racial bias. Stevenson creates suspense by ending the chapter with investigators failing to find any evidence implicating Walter, because at this point the reader already knows that Walter is in prison for murder.