Justice tab

2009 Justice Prize

Bryan Stevenson

Born in Delaware in 1959, Bryan Stevenson grew up in a poor rural community where he developed a sense that “there was this break in the world, and if you grew up on one side of that crack, it was definitely different than if you grew up on the other side of it.” As he grew older, his deeper understanding of that division was for him “a reflection of our commitment to human rights and equal justice, which became a way for me to think about how I wanted to spend my time.” He entered law school with no clear idea of what kind of law he wanted to practice – or even if he wanted to practice law at all – but going to Georgia to work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (now the Southern Center for Human Rights) exposed him to people desperately needing legal assistance and whose cases revealed a stark bias against the poor and people of color. That experience moved him in the direction of the kind of litigation and advocacy to which he now devotes his professional life.

After his graduation from Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, Stevenson worked as a staff attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta (1985) and then as executive director of the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center (1989-95), where he represented capital defendants. As a product of the Civil Rights Movement and all of the litigation – including Brown v. Board of Education – that was critical to the advocacy that advanced civil rights in the United States, he saw the courts as being able to protect the rights of disfavored groups where policymakers and other political decision-makers were unwilling to do so. In 1995 he founded and became executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, EJI litigates on behalf of juvenile offenders, poor people denied effective representation, minority defendants whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct, and others against whom the justice system may be stacked. Working with EJI, Stevenson has largely been responsible for reversals and reduced sentences in more than 75 death penalty cases and has provided an effective training and consulting resource for counsel representing death row inmates. He is currently spearheading litigation in 19 states to get a fair review of sentencing and parole-eligible re-sentencing. He is dedicated to achieving a national consensus in this country for abolishing life sentences without parole for 13- and 14-year-olds. In representing death row inmates, children sentenced to life without parole, or anyone else sentenced to prison for other crimes, Stevenson says that what is important to him is “understanding how they get broken.” While he does not want the public to take on more risk to manage these breaks, he rejects the notion that the way to a healthier community and society is to destroy the people who are broken. His representation of condemned prisoners has won him numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship Award, the Reebok Human Rights Award, the ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and the American Bar Association Wisdom Award. In 1996 he was named Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers. Stevenson has consistently been recognized by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America.

Stevenson and EJI have successfully demonstrated how racial minorities are routinely excluded from jury service and have worked to develop guidelines for monitoring jury selection for use by community workers, lawyers and advocacy groups. Stevenson also addressed Russian lawmakers and was part of the effort that succeeded in getting 800 death sentences commuted in Russia during the Yeltsin era, and has worked with advocacy groups in Eastern Europe on litigation strategies to protect oppressed groups and with lawyers in the Caribbean to reduce executions. In 1998, Stevenson joined the clinical faculty at NYU Law School and is currently a professor of law there. He has also been visiting lecturer of law at Harvard, Yale, and University of Michigan Law Schools. He believes that most students enter law school with great intentions – “to be the kind of advocates that advance the human condition and increase the justice quotient for people” – but that certain norms and values, including the definition of success in purely material terms, are reinforced in law school. Stevenson would like to see law schools do more to affirm people’s instincts that it’s okay to be inspirational and idealistic – “to affirm that there are many ways to succeed and achieve and contribute, and that making a lot of money is just one small part of that.” He believes that many students who resist the idea of public service work see their lives changed when they are exposed to it, and that this exposure ought to be part of what law school requires. He points to the increase in public service opportunities over the past 30 years and sees the law school’s role in facilitating such opportunities as reason for optimism.