Stevenson describes Walter’s life after his release. Media attention about his case intensifies, and Walter’s story is featured in the book Circumstantial Evidence. Stevenson remarks that during the 1990’s, the increasing pace and rate of executions intensified public debate about the death penalty and concern about the possibility of wrongful convictions. Stevenson and Walter travel the country meeting officials and talking about the death penalty. Stevenson describes himself as frequently passionate during these events, but he remarks that Walter’s calm, good-humored way of telling his story was “effective” in winning audience sympathy and indignation about his experiences. Walter and Minnie peacefully separate, and Walter stays a while with his sister in Florida. Walter thinks often about his time and friends on death row, and he can’t understand why, now that his ordeal is over, he is so stricken with horrific memories of death row, particularly of the execution of fellow inmates.
Stevenson again shows the interdependent relationship between media, public opinion, and changes in the criminal justice system. This time, he illustrates how the public is capable of responding to trends in criminal justice with skepticism, thereby holding the system accountable. The concerns of the public then shape media coverage, which in turn further affects public opinion. Stevenson suggests that people are more responsive to issues when they have the chance to meet and see the humanity in those personally affected. Walter’s horrific memories of death row suggest that he was deeply traumatized. This reinforces the book’s argument that incarceration, on death row in particular, affects the mental health of inmates.
EJI pursues financial compensation for Walter. They seek help from Stevenson’s friend Rob McDuff, a “charming” white southern litigator who’d been effective in other racially charged cases. Stevenson writes that, at the time, few states offered compensation for wrongful imprisonment. Today, only some states offer such provisions. Then, as now, there are restrictions on eligibility and compensation amounts. Stevenson provides examples of how the Supreme Court has upheld laws granting immunity to law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges, even in cases of wrongful imprisonment and suppressed evidence. EJI succeeds in securing a few hundred thousand dollars from each agency responsible for Walter’s conviction. They struggle the most to sue Sherriff Tate, to whom Stevenson refers as the most active and clearly racially-biased contributor. Their lawsuit goes to the Supreme Court, which upholds Tate’s immunity on a technicality. Stevenson writes that Tate remained the Sherriff at the time of the book’s publication.
Stevenson’s choice to highlight McDuff as a “charming” white Southerner who is persuasive in racially charged cases suggests the added credibility the white-dominated courts may assign to white Southern attorneys,, particularly in cases involving existing racial tensions. By highlighting cases in which immunity laws have protected officials who suppressed evidence, Stevenson suggests an explanation for why the officials in Walter’s case acted without fear of consequences. Sherriff Tate, the man who threatened Myers in order to coerce his testimony, is ironically the person held least accountable by the law. His immunity, and the fact that he remains in office, suggests the failure of the system to address the underlying problems that led to Walter’s conviction.
Walter returns to Monroeville and starts a logging business. The familiar outdoor work gives him a sense of freedom. A logging accident forces Walter to spend months staying with Stevenson and recovering. Walter remains optimistic, and he decides to start a junkyard business so he can still work outside. In 1998, Stevenson and Walter attend a conference in Chicago of former death row inmates. Stevenson writes that, at that time, DNA evidence and the growing abolition movement were generating opposition against the death penalty. Each year, Stevenson brings Walter to the NYU Law School to speak to his students. He writes that the students are always deeply moved to hear Walter’s firsthand account. One year, Walter gets disoriented on his way to NYU and he doesn’t arrive. Walter explains to Stevenson afterwards that things aren’t going well for his business, and they agree to travel together next time.
Stevenson depicts Walter’s efforts to continue trying to build something new out of his life after his release. He highlights Walter’s desire to work outside, suggesting that his years of extreme confinement have altered his emotional relationship to space and have created in him a need to feel physically free. The law students’ reactions to meeting Walter and to hearing his story relate back to Stevenson’s own experience as a law student and his eagerness to see and feel the real-life relevance and power of the law. Stevenson’s account about Walter getting lost and struggling with his business imply that Walter’s ability to cope may be declining.
In 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress, funds supporting death row inmates were cut. Many other legal aid groups in the country shut down, but EJI intensified fundraising among private donors. Stevenson writes that, despite the financial and workload stress, he was excited for EJI to have a growing, dedicated staff that was fighting larger issues like child imprisonment and discrimination against the poor, disabled, and minorities. That year, Sweden awarded EJI the Olof Palme International Human Rights Award. Stevenson was excited because of Sweden’s progressive, rehabilitation-focused criminal justice system. A camera crew came to the U.S. to interview EJI and people they’d represented, including Walter. Discussing the interview over the phone, Walter told Stevenson that he wanted Stevenson to come “hang out” sometime, an unusual request despite how much time they’d spent together.
Stevenson shows the relationship between national election cycles and real-life effects on organizations that work with marginalized groups. The polarizing quality of the death penalty debate likely makes EJI and similar organizations especially vulnerable to shifts in national political power. Stevenson’s depiction of his phone call with Walter suggests that Walter may be lonely and struggling. This sense is further conveyed by the detail that Walter rarely asked explicitly to hang out. Sweden’s recognition of EJI is meaningful to Stevenson given the country’s progressive prison policies.
Stevenson flies out to Sweden to receive the award. He writes about a previous visit to Brazil, where he’d lectured about “unjust treatment of disfavored people.” He writes that, unlike the Brazilians, the Swedish hadn’t seen that kind of discrimination and abuse in their country, so their enthusiastic responses seemed to be motivated by empathy. Stevenson speaks at a Swedish high school. He marvels at how much the students seem to care about injustices against strangers so far away. The students sing a sorrowful song that Stevenson describes as “dissonant” and “transcendent.” He fights tears when he thinks of his mother, a lifelong church musician who has just died months before. At his hotel, he turns on the Swedish news and he sees the report about EJI for the first time. In front of the camera, Walter breaks down in tears as he describes how he “lost everything.” Stevenson is worried and feels it’s time to go home.
Stevenson is moved by the interest and empathetic response of Swedish audiences, especially because they have no cultural frame of reference for these problems. Their recognition of EJI’s work and their interest comes from another perspective on justice that falls outside the local and national political contexts that Stevenson has primarily worked with. The symbol of music reappears in the scene at the high school, reinforcing the power of music to stir emotions and communicate truths about the human condition, suffering, and hope. Seeing Walter on TV, Stevenson is brought back to the reality about the work that remains to be done back home.