For more than thirty years, Bryan Stevenson has worked to bring justice to the justice system. Now, his fight is coming to HBO.
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, a new documentary from HBO and Kunhardt Films, chronicles the ongoing efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Stevenson, to bring impartiality and equality to the American criminal justice system.
A public interest lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson is a prolific figure in social justice and legal reform, holding 35 honorary doctorates from institutions all across the country and the American Bar Association Medal. Since starting the EJI in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won dozens of cases involving wrongly convicted and unfairly sentenced defendants, including reversals and relief for 135 people on death row.
Sharing his experiences outside of the courtroom, Stevenson has given countless speeches, spoken with dozens of reporters, and even written a memoir, titled Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption — set to hit theaters as a film adaptation, starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, in January 2020. Last April, Stevenson and the EJI established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, dedicated to 4,400 victims of lynching.
But True Justice remains Stevenson’s only foray into the world of documentary. Part portrait of an activist and part exposé, the finished film is nothing short of a battlecry for change, backed by an army of nightmarish and under-discussed realities of a system that fails so many.
Airing June 26 at 8PM ET/PT on HBO, the project was a long time coming, in part because Stevenson wasn’t sure whether it should be made at all.
In a conversation with Mashable, Stevenson shares what worried him about creating True Justice, how he hopes his work can change the world, and what viewers can do to support his cause.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Mashable: You’ve been a visible figure in the fight for criminal justice reform for some time, but never before done a documentary. What made you decide to create True Justice?
Bryan Stevenson: I had been asked before about doing documentaries and I was very reluctant. My whole career, [the Equal Justice Initiative] has been sort of underground and covert. We didn’t put a sign on the building until about five years ago.
“If I wanted this to become an era of truth and reconciliation, then I realized I was going to have to just be out there a little bit more.”
That’s because, generally speaking, I continue to think of myself and our institution as client-centered. My trepidation in the past has been that usually people want to do documentaries about cases that are ongoing and active. And I’ve never felt that that’s safe for the client.
When you represent people who are disfavored and hated and marginalized, often times you have to create an environment where people, against their instincts, make a decision that’s just and that’s favorable.
I couldn’t give people access to a current case without knowing how that was going to implicate our ability to win relief. Obviously, at times, we’ve been very public with some of our cases, but that’s certainly not the norm.
So I think the orientation I’ve had is it’s about the legal work. It’s about the client. It’s about the issues. And it’s certainly not about me. But as we began thinking about opening the museum and the memorial, I realized that we had to create more platforms for getting this narrative out there.
I’ve been doing a lot of speeches, and we’ve had a lot of people come to the site — but if I want this to become an era of truth and reconciliation, then I realized I was going to have to just be out there a little bit more. We want people to engage differently with history and think differently about these issues.
Mashable: What specifically concerned you about bringing your work and consequently the very personal stories of others to HBO?
BS: One of the things that I think has contributed to the problem of mass incarceration is that we’ve created this very inaccurate, misleading, widespread narrative about who makes decisions in this system.
“We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”
We’ve created Law and Order-type dramas where all of the police officers are attractive and nice and thoughtful and conflicted. And we’ve created narratives about judges where they’re presented as always very balanced and sincere.
Those narratives have given confidence to a lot of people about the criminal justice system that is not well-earned.
I say in True Justice, because I see it in my life and practice, that we have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. That’s a reality I don’t think we’ve done well portraying in the media.
As a society, we didn’t get to the point where our politicians could say “Let’s eliminate the minimum age for trying children as adults” or “Let’s lock everybody up and throw away the key” without support from media and journalism and narratives that reinforced that.
As a lawyer, I have an obligation to protect my clients first and I’m going to do [a documentary] a little differently than some other people will do it. But I do think we have to create some counter narrative to this idea that the police are always reliable and trustworthy, and our prosecutors always do the just thing and that there are no politics or bias or bigotry.
Mashable: How do you approach people who might not be ready to have that illusion of the justice system shattered?
BS: I think we have to be willing to go where people are. I can’t just get up on a soapbox and say, “This is the truth and you need to recognize it and respond to it.” I don’t think that’s going to be effective.
As a lawyer who has had to go into court rooms, sometimes with all-white juries or all-white decision makers or people who are very resistant to a narrative about this history or even a narrative about the challenges that my client has faced, I can’t just say, “Well, you all are all wrong. I’m right and you need to do what I say.”
You’ve got to go where people are — and that to me is the power of narrative. You can actually sometimes create a story and a context that people can relate to that allows them to follow you to a place that gets them to look at something more critically, and more closely.
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Mashable: In True Justice, you highlight the importance of protecting the imperfect defendants. How does that help create a better context for people grappling with the reality of bias within the justice system?
BS: We tend to want things to be black or white, and that’s just not human behavior. That’s not the human experience.
I have a client who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for being in possession of marijuana. He’s a 75-year-old combat veteran in a wheelchair.
While that man is guilty under the law, I think he has been unjustly treated, and that sentence is wrong and wasteful. And I don’t think many people could support that sentence, despite the fact that he did illegally grow marijuana.
“It can’t just be about the innocent person that gets released, or only the people who did nothing wrong.”
I’ve also got a lot of clients who are severely mentally disabled. If you’re poor and you’re having a psychotic episode on the sidewalk and somebody calls the police, what’s going to happen when the police arrive is that because you’re in the middle of a psychosis, you’re not going to cooperate. You’re going to resist arrest, and you’re likely going to end up with a charge of assaulting an officer. In a lot of states, that carries a mandatory 20 year prison sentence.
So if we are not capable of looking beyond whether a person did something wrong or bad or disruptive, we’re not going to actually be able to evaluate what is justice. That’s the conversation we’ve been slow to get to. I think so many of our sentences are extreme and abusive and cruel.
That doesn’t mean that people can’t be held accountable, and it doesn’t mean that we have to find ways to help people who are a threat to themselves or other people. But it can’t just be about the innocent person that gets released, or only the people who did nothing wrong. If that’s the metric of our system, we are going to leave a lot of justice unexamined.
Mashable: For many people, the debate surrounding the death penalty is strictly a moral one of whether or not people deserve to die for their crimes. But in True Justice, you present it very differently.
BS: Yes, I feel the need to move away from that moral abstract. To me the threshold question about the death penalty isn’t “Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?” I think the threshold question is “Do we deserve to kill?”
If we have a system that is undermined by bias and discrimination, if we have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent, if we have a system that is defined by errors where we’ve made so many mistakes and convicted and condemned so many innocent people, the question is: “Do we deserve to kill?”
“In the death penalty context, we accept this rate of error because we don’t actually think that it implicates us.”
We now know that for every ten people we’ve executed, we’ve identified one innocent person on death row who has been released.
But what if I said, “One out of every ten apples in the store will kill you instantly if you touch it?” Then nobody would sell apples. We would not tolerate that risk of error.
If for every ten planes that took off one crashed and everybody died, then we would stop flying. It’s just unacceptable.
In the death penalty context, we accept this rate of error because we don’t actually think that it implicates us. But ultimately the question of the death penalty is about what kind of society do we live in. And if we are making these kinds of mistakes, if we’re tolerating this kind of bias, then I think we live in a society that doesn’t deserve to kill.
Mashable: What made you decide to take on this type of work? And how do you cope with the realities and stakes of the role you play in your clients’ lives?
BS: I live in Montgomery, Alabama. I’m three blocks from where Dr. King pastored his church. I’m two blocks from where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. I am surrounded by the spirits and souls of people who did extraordinary things. I’m standing on their shoulders, and they did so much more with so much less. I believe I am required to carry that on.
The reason why I’m even talking to you is that lawyers came into my community and made them open up the public schools for black kids. So I got to go to high school and college. If those lawyers hadn’t taken the time and made the commitment to help poor black kids like me, then I wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“I’m standing on their shoulders, and they did so much more with so much less.”
I’m mindful of that every day, and I feel a calling to challenge the burdens and the barriers and the constraints that are still holding too many poor people and too many people of color and too many incarcerated people from their full potential.
So I’m encouraged, despite the challenges, by the people who have come before me. Sometimes I look out the window and I think about the people who were doing this work 60 and 70 years ago. They had to frequently say, “My head is bloody but not bowed.” I’ve never had to say that. And it just tells me that there’s a lot more I can do if I have the right orientation.
I can’t say that the work isn’t hard. It can at times be really overwhelming. But I can say that it’s liberating to be purpose driven, to be pulled by belief and an idea that there’s something better waiting for us and to be encouraged by a community of people who’ve come before me who found ways to stand when others said sit down.
Mashable: How do you hope viewers will react to True Justice, and support the fight for criminal justice reform moving forward?
BS: I hope they will seek out more information about these issues of criminal justice reform, and learn more about our racial history. I hope they will come to our site in Montgomery because we think there’s something really important that can be gained by spending time in these spaces.
I hope it will shape people’s thinking and their decision making around politics and who should be leading this country and who shouldn’t. And I hope it will inspire them to understand their local histories with a lot more care about what happened to create the conditions that currently exist where they live.
Above all else, I hope they’ll take action. We’ve got so many people coming out of jails and prisons that need help. We have so many jurisdictions where the laws need to change. There’s a great opportunity for this country to be directly engaged in ending mass incarceration and contributing to what I hope becomes an era of truth and reconciliation.
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality will premiere on HBO on June 26 at 8PM ET/PT.