After Walter’s hearing, EJI continues to receive bomb threats. Their staff is growing, and now includes summer interns, whom Stevenson writes “didn’t sign up” for this kind of danger. A series of murders in nearby cities targeting people involved in civil rights efforts compels EJI to take the threats seriously. EJI’s white receptionist “scolds” one of the threatening callers. Some callers mention Walter, which convinces the organization that the threats are related to Walter’s case. One caller tells Stevenson he was offered money to kill Stevenson but he refused. Despite the threats, they continue because they have “work to do.”
Just as Stevenson and Michael suspected, the threats only intensify. Stevenson illustrates not only the intense personal risk and danger that EJI faced at this time, but also their commitment to continuing their work despite those risks. The threats show the intense feelings in local communities regarding Walter’s case. This shows the powerful public opinions of fear and hatred that were stirred toward Walter.
Stevenson receives Judge Norton’s decision. In The judge’s written response, Norton addresses only Myers’ recantation of his testimony. Norton writes that Myers was either lying during the trial or lying at the hearing. He states (without offering proof) that Myers was likely coerced to recant his testimony, and concludes that there is no reason to believe Myers perjured his original testimony. Stevenson remarks that Norton cited no laws and addressed none of the other witness testimonies. He writes that Norton was uninterested in the subject of Walter’s guilt because the judge was “locked into a maintenance role […] a custodian for the system.” Stevenson reassures Walter that his best chance will be the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Between 1990 and 1992, EJI secured several death penalty reversals through the Court of Appeals, despite political resistance. Stevenson is sure that the suppressed “exculpatory evidence” during Walter’s trial will ensure that he gets an appeal.
Stevenson’s metaphor of Norton as a “custodian for the system” likens him to a janitor, whose job is to maintain a status quo of cleanliness and appearances. This image portrays Norton as ineffective and disempowered. Norton appeared very interested during the hearing, yet he doesn’t seem to consider it his job to find out the truth. Instead, he acts to protect the State. Norton’s conclusion that Myers was either lying in the beginning or lying at the hearing willfully ignores the evidence of State involvement, illegal maneuvers, coercion, and the testimonies of others confirming Myers’ recantation. This reinforces Stevenson’s assertion of the corruption of the State in criminal proceedings.
Michael moves to San Diego to work as a public defender. While Michael will miss EJI, Stevenson describes him as being “less conflicted about leaving Alabama.” Michael is replaced by Bernard Harcourt. Stevenson writes that Bernard had planned for a “traditional legal career,” but had become passionate about the work of EJI after interning one summer. After Walter’s hearing, many more in Monroeville come forward with leads and stories of corruption.
Michael’s personal attachment to EJI and Bernard’s choice to return supports the image of EJI as a place that attracts dedicated individuals and that fosters close personal connections. Walter’s hearing inspires others in the community to speak out, which shows that knowing they will be heard brings marginalized groups out of silence.
Stevenson realizes the need to change Walter’s public image to make his return safer should EJI secure his release. Stevenson is wary because, he writes, media coverage of civil right cases often creates a “backlash” that worsens life for oppressed people. Judge Patterson, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, had once, as governor, sued the New York Times for defamation following coverage during the civil rights movement. In Sullivan vs. New York Times, the Supreme Court ruled that defamation lawsuits required evidence of intent. The ruling was a “victory for freedom of the press,” but it created further contempt for national media in the South. Stevenson writes that he usually avoids national coverage of death penalty cases because it can lead to faster execution dates. Nevertheless, local media continues to depict Walter as an incredibly dangerous and predatory criminal, and Stevenson fears that Walter’s appeal will also be influenced if they aren’t able to reverse his image.
The risk that Stevenson takes in moving forward with seeking national media coverage of Walter’s case is magnified by the fact that the chief judge is the same person who once waged a high-profile battle with a national media outlet for their coverage of Southern affairs. Stevenson illustrates the surprisingly complex relationship between the media and justice, illustrating how the well-intended efforts of the media to shed light on injustice can have unintended consequences on a local level. This suggests that activists like Stevenson need to carefully weigh the unique circumstances and range of possible consequences before moving forward with talking to the media.
Stevenson agrees to work with the CBS program 60 Minutes to produce a story about Walter’s case. Their reporters come to Monroeville and interview Walter, Myers, Chapman, and everyone involved in the case. Even before the story airs, the local newspapers release several articles condemning “big time reporters” for what they consider to be biased and condescending investigation of the case. Despite the disapproving views of local media and officials, most of the community watches and respects 60 Minutes. When the story airs, many begin to question Walter’s guilt. The black community is relieved to finally see coverage of Walter’s side of the story. Though Chapman defends Walter’s conviction in the CBS story, he has, unbeknownst to Stevenson, launched his own investigation into Walter’s guilt though the ABI. Stevenson writes that Chapman had begun to reconsider putting his career at risk for a conviction he was beginning to suspect was wrongful.
The history of animosity between local media in Monroeville and national media runs so deep that, even before the story airs, local media outlets are prepared to oppose CBS. This example provides another instance of a small town’s distrust of outside voices and the sense that things that happen in their community aren’t the business of outsiders. In this segment, Stevenson shows the positive power of media to shed light on injustice and to challenge and shape public opinion. Stevenson’s portrayal of Chapman as politically influenced but capable of considering truth is affirmed when Chapman begins to question if he is going to be on the wrong side of history.
New ABI investigators Tom Taylor and Greg Cole contact Stevenson, asking for files from Walter’s case. Stevenson writes that the investigators weren’t “connected to any of the players in South Alabama.” Six months after EJI files Walter’s appeal, ABI informs Stevenson that they have determined that Walter isn’t guilty. They also report that Bill Hooks and Joe Hightower have retracted their testimonies. They say that the public is more likely to accept Walter’s innocence if another suspect is found, which EJI has already considered. Stevenson writes that EJI had received frequent calls from a man inquiring about the case and offering bogus leads. After some investigation into their caller, EJI determined he was the most likely suspect. EJI discovered that, before her death, Ronda Morrison may have been stalked by a white man and that a white man was also seen at the Cleaners on the day of the murder. Stevenson agrees to give information about his suspect to ABI.
By pointing out that Taylor and Cole were new investigators who didn’t have connections to any of the “players” in South Alabama, Stevenson reinforces the image of local law enforcement as corrupt and loyal to each other over the law or the truth. The findings of the ABI mark a significant turn in Walter’s case, because, for the first time, a state agency is independently asserting Walter’s innocence. The fact that obvious leads (regarding Ronda’s stalker and the white man seen at the Cleaners) hadn’t been investigated by the State affirms the power of racial profiling and suggests local officials’ lack of interest in finding the actual killer.
The ABI encourages Stevenson to pause further action until they can arrest another suspect. Stevenson feels that it is ridiculous and cruel to keep an innocent man in prison until the real murderer is found. Stevenson tries to hasten Walter’s appeal, but State officials ask him for “patience.” Stevenson is furious when the State requests a stay motion on Walter’s appeal pending their recovery of evidence that will exonerate him. Stevenson speaks regularly with Walter’s family. Knowing everything that has gone wrong in Walter’s case, Stevenson is wary of encouraging Walter’s family to be hopeful, but he encourages them regardless. He quotes the Czech leader Václav Havel, who wrote that what those oppressed under Soviet rule needed most was “hope.” Stevenson summarizes Havel by writing that what people needed was “the kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness […] even in the face of abusive power.”
Notwithstanding the ABI’s efforts to discover and report the truth about Walter’s conviction and Ronda’s murder, this conflict highlights the difference between the ABI’s priorities and Stevenson’s. The ABI officials want to produce a clean outcome that will be well received; in contrast, Stevenson remains concerned primarily about what is fair and just for Walter. This helps to distinguish what is unique about advocacy in the legal system. The quote from Havel underscores one of the central messages of the book, which is the importance of hope despite powerful opposing forces. This suggests that hope rests on faith rather than evidence.
Six weeks after EJI files the appeal, Stevenson receives notice that the judge has issued a ruling. He rushes to the courthouse to pick up the 35-page ruling in which the judge nullifies Walter’s sentence and conviction and mandates a new trial. Stevenson drives to death row to tell Walter. He explains that they must wait for the new trial, but that he would be very surprised if Walter were convicted a second time. Walter’s astonishment and relief quickly gives way to sadness. Walter tells Stevenson that he has spent so long fearing for his life that he hasn’t stopped to consider how many years he has lost. They switch to joking around and talking about things Walter looks forward to after release. Stevenson remarks that, throughout everything, Walter never lost his sense of humor. The two have often laughed together, except now it is “the laughter of liberation.”
Walter’s path to freedom has included several failed attempts and small victories, a testament to the complicated routes of the legal system and the importance of persistent advocacy. This process has kept Walter in survival mode, focused only on securing his release, and unable to stop and fully feel sadness and anger at what he has been subjected to. Stevenson illustrates the warmth and resilience of Walter’s character and their strong personal friendship by describing Walter’s sense of humor despite his circumstances. As this example shows, they use humor to ease their anxieties and cope with extreme circumstances.
Before a new trial can be scheduled, Stevenson files a motion to have all of Walter’s charges dropped. The State decides to join rather than oppose the motion. Before the hearing, Stevenson visits Minnie to pick up a suit for Walter. Minnie asks Stevenson to talk to Walter about leaving Monroeville for his safety after he has a chance to celebrate with his friends and family. She says that Stevenson must prepare Walter for the fact that he can’t “go back to the way things were.” Stevenson writes: “For the first time, I fully reckoned with the truth that the […] devastation of this miscarriage of justice had created permanent injuries.”
Like Walter, Minnie reacts with complicated emotions and concerns. Stevenson’s realization is further evidence of the vast and often unseen collateral damage caused by failures of the criminal justice system. Her relationship with Walter is one of the many parts of their lives that has been irreversibly altered, perhaps from their suffering, their time apart, and the publicity of his past affairs.
The morning of the hearing, Stevenson tells Walter about his conversation with Minnie. Walter seems sad, but he tells Stevenson: “nothing can really spoil getting your freedom back.” At the courthouse, Tom Chapman tells Stevenson that he has learned things that he didn’t realize he “had to learn.” The new judge, Pamela Baschab, quickly grants the motion to drop the charges after Stevenson presents his brief. Stevenson realizes that everyone is unusually kind because they don’t want any “grudges.” He considers the many others wrongfully executed without legal aid, and he feels a “simmering anger.” In his closing statements, Stevenson warns the court that it was “too easy” for Walter to be wrongfully sentenced to death and “too difficult to win his freedom,” and that there is still “work” to do. Between cheering crowds and news cameras, Walter embraces his friends and family. He tells Stevenson that he “feels like a bird.”
There is a lot of work for Walter to do to put his life back together. Yet, his response to Stevenson suggests that incarceration and the threat of death have taught him about the preciousness of life and freedom. The mood of this scene is primarily one of relief, celebration, and attempts at atonement. Yet, Stevenson’s statements reveal that he sees underneath the humility and kindness of the court and the State. To him, the underlying structural injustices of the criminal justice system haven’t been addressed. On the contrary, he suggests that the court’s kindness is hypocritical because it isn’t applied broadly to serve justice for those who have no counsel.