In 2010, the Supreme Court bans sentences of life without parole in non-homicide juvenile cases, ruling that it violates the eighth amendment as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Two years later, EJI fights on behalf of Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson before the Supreme Court, seeking a ban on mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile homicide cases. They win the case, bringing hope for the possibility of release to over 2,000 people, including Trina Garrett and Ashley Jones. EJI wins a reduced sentence in the case of several young people whose convictions involved illegal jury selection, jury manipulation, inadmissible evidence, and failure to allow evidence of pertinent experiences, such as child abuse. EJI moves to tackle any incarceration of juveniles in adult facilities and the practice of prosecuting young children in adult courts. Stevenson argues that young children aren’t equipped to handle the procedures of adult court.
The last chapter begins with a series of legal victories and a tone of hope for future progress. This stabilization of tone and events creates a decline in suspense and anxiety, and it indicates that Stevenson’s darkest moments of exhaustion and hopelessness in the previous chapter signified the book’s climax. The Supreme Court cases regarding child incarceration represent a significant victory in EJI’s long fight against injustice. This experience of successfully fighting such a large issue not only gives Stevenson and his organization a sense of hope, but it also proves their efficacy.
By the early 2010’s, EJI achieves success in dramatically slowing the execution rate in Alabama. The number of death sentences successfully reversed by EJI reaches 100. By 2013, Alabama reaches its lowest number of new death sentences since the reinstitution of the death penalty in the 1970’s. Still, individual cases of injustice remain. EJI is unable to secure relief for Anthony Ray Hinton, a “clearly innocent” man who had been on Alabama’s death row for nearly 30 years. Stevenson describes how Mr. Hinton’s underfunded lawyer failed to provide sufficient evidence and didn’t present the countless witnesses to Hinton’s alibi. The media “cit[es] innocence fatigue” and refuses to cover Hinton’s story. Stevenson describes the comfort he takes in overall progress against mass incarceration throughout the United States. In 2012, the number of incarcerated people declined for the first time “in decades.” California also ended the “three strikes” law that mandated long sentences for multiple petty crimes, and the state nearly banned the death penalty.
In this segment, Stevenson depicts overall state and national progress toward systemic justice, as well as the individual cases where injustice persists. By showing this contrast, Stevenson points to the disparity between individual and collective realities. He demonstrates the piecemeal nature of progress by showing how progress is unable to provide a solution for everyone all at once. He also suggests that his own outlook is shaped by his sense of overall improvement, and he shows how this is a coping mechanism against sadness over individual losses. The media’s claim of “innocence fatigue” highlights that the media prioritizes attracting consumers over holding the powerful accountable.
EJI finally launches a long-hoped-for “race and poverty” project. The project is focused on educating the public about the American history of racial injustice and its connection to modern societal problems. They talk to families in poor communities, host educational programming for high school students, and create and circulate reports and educational materials to “deepen the national conversation” about America’s racial history.
After years of fighting injustice in the legal sphere, EJI now moves to address some of the main underlying causes of injustice in the court and prison systems: racial inequality, poverty, and lack of public education. This project underscores the need to connect history to the present in order to gain perspective on current issues.
Stevenson describes four periods of America’s racial history and he explains how these periods are often misrepresented to the public as being isolated incidents in the larger historical narrative of progress. The first period is slavery. The second is the post-Reconstruction era, a period of organized violence against black people that is omitted from modern discussions of “terrorism.” Stevenson considers the death penalty to be a modern continuation of lynching. He describes how violence created an “enforced racial hierarchy” and how the law re-enslaved black people for petty crimes through “convict leasing.” Next, Stevenson describes how Jim Crow laws perpetuated “racial segregation, racial subordination, and marginalization.” Stevenson describes modern oppression through “innocent mistakes” against people of color, citing an occasion when a white judge assumed Stevenson was the defendant because he is black. The fourth stage, Stevenson writes, is mass incarceration of poor, black, and undocumented people, and the consequences this has on perpetuating inequality.
Throughout the book, Stevenson has connected modern legal cases to related historical injustices. Here, he ties these references together by outlining a clear progression of historical stages. Stevenson’s account challenges common historical narratives, which he argues are misrepresentative. In Stevenson’s account, events aren’t isolated or finite, but they are part of a continuous chain of cause and effect, progress and reactive oppression. His account frames hatred and the drive for white domination as constant forces that transform over time but are never obliterated. He shows how past institutions and violence that are now usually condemned, like slavery and lynching, were the precursors to modern mass incarceration of people of color and the death penalty.
EJI’s Supreme Court victories mean a much bigger caseload. As they now pursue hundreds of individual sentences throughout the country, they encounter resistance from local courts. For example, a California judge commutes Antonio Núñez’s life sentence to 175 years. With persistence, EJI gets reasonable release dates secured for Antonio, Joe Sullivan, and Ian Manuel. They develop a re-entry program, which will help persuade the courts to change sentences. EJI prioritizes cases in Louisiana, where many “old-timers” have served decades for juvenile offenses. Many of these are at Angola prison, a former slavery-era cotton plantation where modern inmates were forced into dangerous labor and regularly punished with expanded sentences for petty violations. New programs rewarding good behavior, however, allow some of these lifers to become recognized mentors. EJI begins with the cases of Joshua Carter and Robert Caston, two men serving life at Angola for non-homicide crimes committed as children in the 1960’s.
The difficulty EJI faces in keeping up with promising cases and the continued resistance they face from local courts shows how their work is never finished, even after a victory. This suggests that, in advocacy work, the goal isn’t to finish but to continue. The judge’s commutation of Antonio’s sentence provides an example of legal manipulation in order to get around the intent of the law. This suggests the room for abuse of power within legal institutions and the importance of advocacy and accountability measures to counteract abuse. The example of Angola’s slavery-era history and modern forced labor highlights Stevenson’s earlier arguments regarding the connection between previous oppressive structures and the modern prison system.
Mr. Carter and Mr. Caston, now in their sixties, were both forced laborers at Angola who became disabled from labor-related injuries and medical neglect. Mr. Carter’s mother, now in her 90’s, “vowed […] she wouldn’t die until he came home from prison.” EJI schedules several hearings on their behalf. Each time they come to the New Orleans courtroom, the judge is too busy reviewing a long line of cases all scheduled for the same time. Eventually, EJI and the local counselor succeed in getting their hearings. The judge grants their motion for Mr. Caston’s release and gives a speech about the years he lost in prison. Suddenly, the busy courtroom, full of other lawyers and their clients, becomes silent. When she finishes, everyone starts clapping. Their motion for Mr. Carter is also approved, and the two men become the first juvenile lifers released following the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Stevenson’s use of “Mr.” when describing Carter and Caston, like his use “Ms.” when talking about Rosa Parks and other older women in the books, is distinguished from his use of first or last names to refer to other characters. This distinction suggests the special importance he places on respectfully addressing his elders. Stevenson’s depiction of Carter and Caston’s advanced age and disabilities caused by prison labor help to explain why these “old-timers” were prioritized in EJI’s docket. The judge’s speech and the courtroom’s applause create a vibrant, cinematic scene that illustrates the potential for human mercy and compassion.
After the hearings, Stevenson meets an old woman outside the courtroom. She hugs him and tells him to sit down. She isn’t connected to any of the cases, she explains, but years before, her beloved grandson was killed by two other boys. When they were sentenced to life, her pain only intensified. A stranger saw her crying and comforted her. Soon after, she began coming to the courtroom to offer families of victims and the accused someone to “lean on.” She calls herself a “stonecatcher,” referencing Stevenson’s church speech in Monroeville years before. Stevenson had quoted Jesus’ words to a mob eager to kill an adulteress: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Stevenson had implored the congregation not to throw stones at Walter, but to be “stonecatchers.” The old woman warns Stevenson that stonecatching will make him sing “some sad songs,” but that those songs will keep him hopeful. She gives him a peppermint candy, a gesture he finds strangely comforting.
The appearance of the old woman, who is unconnected to any case but who immediately embraces and offers wisdom to Stevenson, evokes the literary archetype of the “wise old woman” as depicted by Carl Jung. Her allusions to Stevenson’s past words and her predictions about his future sadness serve to reinforce this image, suggesting her air of omniscience and clairvoyance. Stevenson’s biblical argument about throwing and catching stones suggests the Christian foundations for his philosophies on redemption and mercy. The woman’s words about singing sad songs connect to the book’s many instances of song during hopeless situations.