Lessons from a Death Row Lawyer

As part of the MLK celebration activities on Vanderbilt University’s campus, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Bryan Stevenson, a graduate of Harvard Law School and Kennedy school. He currently spends most of his time defending death row prisoners against a system so focused on executing who it deems guilty. Wanting to work in pediatrics and having an interest in policy, his thoughts on how to advocate for people who are often defenseless (children in my case) and the steps he has taken resonated with me. Additionally, being a black man in America, I could contribute to the fight towards justice for the unheard through many different channels.

Bryan Stevenson shared four important points that have since made me think of how I could better serve those around me, and in the future, be able to better serve my patient population.

  1. Getting proximate to the places where there is injustice: Visiting his first client as a law student, a death row prisoner in the state of Georgia ignited the flame that he now carries for civil rights in America. Since then, he has not stopped fighting for people who were wrongfully prescribed the death penalty. Being directly in touch with the people that you represent certainly has an effect on your ability to empathize and represent them well. Taking a simple look at lawmakers that came from wealthy backgrounds and comparing them to those who were long involved in the community, you may notice a difference in how they stand when it comes to policies affecting the average Joe in this country.
  2. Changing the narrative: In America, people are afraid and ashamed of talking about race. Any reminder of slavery makes people uncomfortable, probably because they are ashamed of their ancestors’ legacy. Dear [racist] White People, why should we care that you are uncomfortable when racism and slavery are brought up? In Germany for example, reminders of the holocaust are everywhere, and people get very sad all over the world when talking about that massacre. In America however, black people are basically told to get over slavery. Were white people more often reminded of the history of slavery, segregation and implicit bias against African-Americans, perhaps they would make a more conscious effort to work on bringing justice to communities affected by injustices. Bryan’s Organization plans on landmarking places such as lynching sites all over the south to raise awareness when it comes to how rampant such practices were.
  3. Protecting our hope: As Bryan said “Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” We are witnesses of hopelessness in our communities on a daily basis. Chicago is an example: crime within the black community is so high because the youth lacks opportunities to be productive members of society and make their way “out of the hood.” Many have lost hope and turned to drugs, gang activities, and other things that put them at a higher risk of encountering a police officer likely to gun them down without thinking twice, or facing a prosecutor that will dupe them into taking plea deals that will put them “away” for longer periods than if they had hope and fought the fight. Helping our communities regain hope is essential to improving the current conditions.
  4. Doing uncomfortable things: I can’t stress this point enough. One of the things that I learned in 2015 was how much one could grow by stepping out of the comfort zone. For Bryan Stevenson, this consisted in often visiting a prison in Alabama where the lead guard sported a truck bedazzled by confederate flag stickers and humiliated him during his first visit by strip searching him. The simple act of often visiting prisons is stepping out of one’s comfort zone, especially when having been an academic his entire life. Stepping out of our comfort zone allows us to see things from others prospectives and helps us improve our ability to think differently.
“Why is it that in America, when we see the broken, we want to break them down even further, as it we aim to castigate them for their broken condition” — Bryan Stevenson

I left this talk feeling empowered, armed with more tools that will help me become a better advocate for my people, and for my future patients. What’s great about the point that he made is that they can benefit anyone, and are not solely geared towards black folks. Rich, Middle Class, Poor, Black, White, Hispanic and all other groups can all step out of their respective comfort zone, get in touch with less fortunate communities, contribute to changing the narrative and protecting and restoring hope in hopeless communities.

Check out Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative and the work on race and equality, children in prison, mass incarceration and the death penalty; and his recently published book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

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