The New Yorker profiles Bryan Stevenson, an African-American civil-rights lawyer who in 1989 at the age of 29 moved to Montgomery, Al., and founded an organization that became the Equal Justice Initiative. It provides legal representation to every inmate on the state’s death row. The agency has handled hundreds of capital cases, and has spared 125 offenders from execution. Stevenson has also argued the appeals of prisoners who were convicted as juveniles and given long sentences or life in prison.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roper v. Simmons, which held that held that states could no longer execute offenders who had committed their crimes before the age of eighteen. At the time, the Equal Justice Initiative had several clients in Alabama who had been charged when they were teenagers and were now exempt from execution. “When I went down and started talking to the guys and said, ‘I’ve got great news, they’re not going to execute,’ it wasn’t, like, joy, because they were all still quite young,” Stevenson recalled. “It was just another kind of death sentence. ‘Oh, seventy more years in prison.’ ” If the high court ruled that children were too immature to be sentenced to death, he reasoned, then they shouldn’t be sentenced to life, either. For a test case, he began a nationwide search for inmates who had been convicted of crimes as juveniles and sentenced to life without parole.