In the summer 1989, despite a series of setbacks with obtaining space and securing funding, Stevenson and his friend Eva Ansley finally open the Equal justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. Even as they struggle with fundraising and hiring, they are immediately bombarded with death row cases. EJI clients begin pleading for them to make last-stage appeals for fellow inmates. Stevenson remarks that counsel in such cases was becoming even harder to secure since the publication of an article by David Bagwell, the volunteer lawyer who represented the recently executed Wayne Ritter. In the article, Bagwell expressed his disillusionment, encouraged lawyers not to defend death row cases, and expressed his support for the death penalty, saying “mad dogs ought to die.” Bagwell’s article was passed around among inmates, who developed a greater distrust of lawyers.
Stevenson and Ansley’s determination to serve the death-row population in Alabama is evident from their persistence in forming the EJI and immediately taking on cases despite understaffing and financial instability. Their need to take care of logistical details conflicts with the urgency of pleas from death row, highlighting the importance of resources to facilitate effective advocacy. Bagwell’s public airing of his disillusionment and his personal lack of concern for death row inmates contrasts with the willingness of Stevenson and Ansley to inconvenience themselves for their cause.
Two of the inmates Stevenson and Ansley’s clients beg them to assist are Michael Lindsey and Horace Dunkins. Stevenson and Ansley appeal Lindsey’s sentence on the grounds that the judge had converted the jury’s verdict of a life sentence to the death penalty. Stevenson writes that while Alabama’s judicial power could be used to convert a death penalty into a life sentence, 91% of the time when it is used, Alabama judges use it to convert from life sentences to the death. Stevenson comments that due to a lack of public education and competitive election cycles, Alabama judges often apply the harshest available punishment in order to appear tough on crime. The governor of Alabama, Guy Hunt, denies EJI’s request for clemency for Michael Lindsey, who is executed in May of 1989.
The pleas from death row inmates on behalf of their fellow prisoners demonstrate their capacity for selflessness and empathy despite their own dire circumstances. Stevenson demonstrates the problem of political motivation in the court system, and illustrates the importance of public education by showing the connections between public education, public views, election cycles and court rulings. Stevenson holds public education responsible for instilling compassion and he suggests that education can mean the difference between life or death.
EJI makes another last-stage appeal for Horace Dunkins, a mentally retarded man, but their appeal is denied. Stevenson writes that at the time of Dunkins’ execution, the Supreme Court allowed executions of the intellectually disabled, and it wasn’t until 13 years later in the Atkins vs. Virginia ruling that the practice was banned. Horace’s botched execution prolongs his death, and, against the family’s religious requests, an autopsy is performed. The family tries to sue the prison because, on top the system taking their son’s life, they feel that the autopsy was wrong because the prison “had no right to mess with his body and soul, too.”
Stevenson illustrates the fluidity of moral arguments surrounding the death penalty by showing the differences in Supreme Court rulings over time. The capacity for the Supreme Court to change its position on the death penalty conflicts with the irreversibility of the death penalty itself; the Court found that executing the mentally disabled was unconstitutional, but this decision can’t retroactively impact the fate of Dunkins.
After the executions of Lindsey and Dunkins, Stevenson and Ansley are still struggling to set up and staff their office due to their limited budgets and difficult work conditions. One day, a death row inmate and Vietnam veteran, Herbert Richardson, calls EJI pleading for help. His execution date is 30 days away. Stevenson tries to delicately explain his limited resources, but Herbert persists, telling Stevenson that all he wants is some sign of hope. Stevenson is haunted by Richardson’s desperation and, feeling that he “can’t say no,” Stevenson takes on the case.
The personal sacrifices that Stevenson and Ansley face are apparent, in part, because of their difficulty in finding other lawyers willing to work under the same conditions. Stevenson feels the tension between logistical limitations and Herbert’s life-or-death circumstances. Stevenson’s awareness of Herbert’s humanity makes him feel that it would be impossible to say no, despite his lack of resources.
Stevenson explains that Herbert’s traumas of childhood abuse and his mother’s death were exacerbated by wartime violence. While in a New York veteran’s hospital for his mental health problems, Herbert began dating a nurse and found a new sense of love and hope. When his attachment became unhealthy, the nurse left him. She moved home to Alabama, but he followed her. He placed a bomb on her porch, hoping that when it exploded she would run back to him for “protection.” Stevenson writes that Herbert was deluded but intended no harm. When the blast killed the woman’s niece, Herbert was arrested for murder. His lawyer was paid the standard court-issued $1,000 and didn’t bring up Herbert’s mental health, military service, or background. Without evidence, the prosecution told the all-white jury that Herbert was a “Black Muslim.” When he was sentenced to death, Herbert’s lawyer ignored his request for appeal. Eleven years later his execution date has arrived.
By describing Herbert’s history of loss, abuse and violence, Stevenson attempts to show Herbert’s humanity and explain the events that affected his mental health. By contrasting the pain of Herbert’s past with the sense of hope he associated with his girlfriend, Stevenson gives context for Herbert’s unhealthy obsession. Stevenson implies that Herbert’s lawyer felt no investment in his client’s fate because the court underpaid him. The lawyer’s failure to bring up his client’s past contrasts with Stevenson’s detailed account of Herbert’s life. The prosecution’s unfounded claim that Herbert was a “Black Muslim” served to capitalize on the fears and racial biases of the all-white jury.
Stevenson files several stay motions at the state level on behalf of Herbert, though he has little hope. In the late 1980’s, the Supreme Court began turning death penalty appeals back to state courts. He writes that the Supreme Court had become more concerned with “finality” over “fairness” and they upheld several harsh practices, including the execution of minors. Stevenson finally gets a hearing for Herbert, during which an expert provides evidence that Herbert’s bomb wasn’t intended to kill on contact. The judge rules that the information isn’t evidence and it is too late to be considered. Stevenson is disturbed by the conflict between technicalities and Herbert’s desire to live. At the courthouse, the victim’s family tells Stevenson that they “don’t believe in killing people,” and they ask for help receiving the settlements they were promised. Stevenson reflects on the court’s determination to kill Herbert without concern for the victim’s family.
By providing historical context about the Supreme Court in the late 1980s, Stevenson allows Herbert’s experience to illustrate overall political trends. Stevenson keeps the theme of political power and power structures at the forefront of Herbert’s story. The judge uses legal technicalities to refuse the petition, while failing to consider the implications of the evidence. Stevenson’s interaction with the victim’s family suggests that the local system is too focused on punishment to consider the actual needs and wishes of a victim’s family, which shows an underlying hypocrisy. The family’s forgiveness contrasts with the court’s lack of mercy.
Stevenson explains that over the years Herbert had corresponded with a woman and they fell in love. They marry a week before the execution, and Herbert becomes focused on ensuring that his new wife will receive the flag issued to the families of veterans when they die. Together, Stevenson, Ansley and their receptionist, Doris, put together last-minute petitions for a stay of execution with the governor and the Supreme Court. Herbert’s wife and her family spend Herbert’s last day visiting with him in the prison. Stevenson receives a call from the Supreme Court at 7pm that their petition has been denied. The court official offers to fax over the decision, and Stevenson marvels at the irrelevance of paperwork when a man is about to die. He rushes to the courthouse to be with Herbert for his death.
Though little information is given about Herbert’s new wife, it is noteworthy that she develops a relationship with a man she knows is destined to die. Marriage, which would normally be considered the beginning of a life together, takes on a very different meaning in this context. Herbert’s new love symbolizes the new beginning he isn’t permitted to have, and it explains the fervor of his last-minute efforts to dispute his sentence. Stevenson continues to focus on the absurdity of bureaucracy and technicalities in light of the gravity of Herbert’s death.
At the prison, Stevenson finds Herbert joking around and trying to stay positive in the presence of his wife and family. When the clock nears 10pm, the visitation officer, an older white woman, comes in to ask the family to start saying their goodbyes. Herbert’s wife clings to him, and the officer leaves, clearly troubled. When she returns, she is emotional and she asks Stevenson for his help in removing the family. Stevenson recounts that a week beforehand he had requested on Herbert’s behalf that the church hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” be played during his execution. To his surprise, the officers had agreed. Stevenson now begins humming the song, and Herbert’s family hums along too. Herbert places his wife in Stevenson’s arms, and she cries as the guards take Herbert away. Stevenson waits while Herbert is taken to have his body shaved for a “cleaner” execution.
Herbert’s mood contrasts with the sobriety of the situation. Despite the intensity of his earlier efforts to fight the courts, it appears that he has now decided to make the best of his last moments. Stevenson demystifies and personalizes the death penalty by describing Herbert’s time with his family in the hour before his death. The intimate scenes with Herbert’s wife and the image of Herbert’s family pulling away as they hum the church hymn further humanizes the moment and evokes a sense tragedy. Stevenson humanizes the officer and reveals her inner conflict by describing her emotional reaction and her reluctance about making the family leave.
Stevenson realizes he isn’t prepared to see Herbert die. Herbert is given a moment with Stevenson. The two men pray together. Herbert tells Stevenson about the strangeness of knowing that he is about to die, and about how considerate and helpful all of the officers have been all day. Stevenson wonders how Herbert’s fate may have differed if people had offered such compassion when he needed it earlier in life or during his trial. Stevenson gives Herbert a long hug before he is taken away. The officers put on a record of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” As he watches Herbert die, Stevenson notices a “cloud of regret and remorse” affecting all of the officers involved. He reflects that individuals who have no direct role in execution debate capital punishment in the abstract, not realizing that it is impossible to kill another human being without “implicating our own humanity.”
Even though Stevenson has been working on death penalty cases for a few years, personally witnessing an execution brings him even closer to it. By describing how he prayed with Herbert, hugged him, and shared in his last reflections, Stevenson shows how he developed a personal friendship with Herbert and how this made witnessing his death more painful. Stevenson’s arguments suggest that those in powerful positions are able to perpetuate the death penalty because they never see it up close. In contrast, those who participate directly feel the reality of killing another person, even if they feel powerless to stop it.