Tonight as the Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, was honored in the ceremonial courtroom of the Southern District of New York with the 2016 Rule of Law Award; a man was executed in Alabama, where EJI is based, despite efforts to obtain a stay of execution.
Christopher Brooks was only 20 at the time of the offense, a rape/murder of a woman, and his court appointed lawyer was only afforded a $1000.00 fee from the state in order to represent Mr. Brooks in this death penalty case. The jury never heard crucial mitigating information which could have informed their decision to grant life without parole rather than the death penalty.
Bryan Stevenson spoke of Mr. Brooks’ case tonight and the pain he felt at leaving Alabama in order to be with us in New York as we honored him at the same time that Mr. Brooks would face execution. It was a somber moment in an evening filled with hope and optimism for so many of us who look to people like Bryan Stevenson as leaders in the movement to restore humanity and racial justice to the criminal justice system and to society as a whole.
Every time the State kills a person in the name of ‘the law’, the rule of law is diminished; for law is nothing without humanity.
Now more than ever, with the news that the Grand Jury has declined to vote an indictment against the cop who applied the deadly choke hold to Eric Garner during an attempted arrest for selling loose cigarettes; I urge everyone to purchase Professor Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy”. Read it. Read the section where Professor Stevenson, a Harvard Law graduate, talks about being stopped and having his car illegally searched in Atlanta when he was a young attorney fighting death penalty sentences and harmful prison conditions in the deep south.
To the officer who ordered him out of his car with gun drawn he was just another black man; someone to be suspected, violated and threatened. It didn’t matter that he was parked down the street from the apartment where he lived, that he was merely listening to the final strains of a favorite Sly and the Family Stone song in his car, or that he didn’t make any aggressive actions towards the police. If he didn’t have the wherewithal to assure the officer who was threatening to, “…blow his head off,” that it was okay over and over with his hands visibly raised above his head, we might not have the opportunity to read this moving and important story.
We all owe it to ourselves and our communities to hear Professor Stevenson’s words; to learn from his years of work as a death penalty lawyer and by doing so to cultivate empathy and understanding so that we may more powerfully address the issues of injustice within the criminal justice system which threatens all of our humanity.
Buy one copy for yourself (from a local/independent bookseller please! See link below.) and purchase another as a holiday gift for a friend, family member or loved one. Give it to those who are already ‘on our side’ and give it to those who scoff skeptically at cases like Garner’s and Michael Brown’s in Ferguson. If you are a lawyer doing defense work; give it to your favorite family member who asks of your chosen profession at holiday gatherings, “…so, how can you defend those people?” Give it to those who think if only black Americans would follow the law they wouldn’t be at such risk of death by the police. Let’s open some eyes and some hearts this holiday season. Let’s “beat the drum for justice”.