The Equal Justice Initiative: Leading the Fight for Criminal Justice Reform and Civil Rights

Bryan Stevenson, Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (Source: Eastern.edu)

Walter McMillian and the Origins of EJI

After the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white clerk named Ronda Morrison in Monroeville, Alabama, police officers were desperate for a suspect and arrested Walter McMillian, a 45-year-old self-employed black man with no prior criminal activity. In violation of his rights, Walter was placed on death row within a few days of the arrest, where he waited over a year for his trial to begin.

After a two-day trial in 1988, despite numerous testimonies that Walter was at a church cookout with his family 11 miles from the site of the murder, the predominantly white jury found Walter guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. Incredibly, the judge went even further by overriding the jury’s decision and sentenced Walter to death by electrocution.

If you have read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy or seen the 2019 film adaptation, Walter’s name and story will be familiar. In Just Mercy, Stevenson depicts Walter’s deeply unsettling experience with the American criminal justice system: the false accusation, the complete and utter lack of due process, his time on death row.

Stevenson himself plays a key role in Walter’s story as his appeals lawyer. After years of appealing, Stevenson and the rest of the EJI legal team proved that Walter’s previous trial was unconstitutional, that the prosecution had concealed exculpatory evidence, and that the prosecution’s witnesses had lied on the stand.

After spending six years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Walter was finally released in March 1993.

Walter McMillian rejoices with his family and his lawyer Bryan Stevenson after his exoneration from Alabama death row in 1993. (Source: EJI)

EJI: the Mission

The legal team working on Walter’s case was part of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit founded by Stevenson in 1989 and dedicated to ending mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial injustices in the United States.

Here at rem, we’ve researched numerous civil liberty charities aimed at fighting racial injustices. Out of all the organizations, EJI stood out for its multi-faceted initiatives targeted at all levels of systemic racism and for its record of impact-driven solutions. Not only does EJI achieve direct impact through their precedent-setting legal representation programs, but they also create long-lasting change through their research, legal policy reform, and powerful sites of history and remembrance aimed towards chipping away at the very foundations of institutionalized racism in the United States. If you are searching for a way to support and contribute towards the fight for justice, the Equal Justice Initiative should be at the top of your list. We invite you to read more about each of their major initiatives below.

Improving Prison Conditions

The American prison industry is in need of serious reform. With over 2.3 million Americans behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As a result of the overcrowding and lack of oversight into misconduct by authorities, many prisons are home to beatings, stabbings, excessive solitary confinement, rapes, killings, and a severe lack of treatment for prisoners with disabilities and mental illnesses.

To combat the mistreatment plaguing many prisons, EJI is conducting investigations into numerous prisons, documenting the findings in public reports, and filing federal lawsuits. In particular, EJI has been seeking reform in Alabama prisons, which have the highest homicide rate and levels of violence nationally. With six homicides occurring over a two-year span at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama, EJI sued the state of Alabama in a 2014 class-action lawsuit, after their investigations revealed the facility’s toleration of weekly stabbings, frequent physical and verbal abuse, and the use of prison doctors who had previously been banned from medicine due to sexual assault of patients. EJI’s investigation and lawsuit have resulted in the implementation of several solutions: a new internal classification system when assigning incarcerated people and prison staff to housing, an incident management system to increase the transparency of violent incidents, and updated security technology, including new cell door locks, video cameras, and housing units.

St. Clair is just one example of EJI’s impact on prison reform. EJI has also uncovered evidence of extreme physical and sexual abuse at three additional Alabama men’s prison facilities affecting, in our estimate, 20,000 inmates at the Elmore, Donaldson, and Bibb Correctional Facilities and highlighted the repeated sexual abuse of female prisoners by male guards at Tutwiler Prison for Women, which launched a federal investigation by the Justice Department in 2013.

EJI’s investigation of Alabama’s prison system found that it was the deadliest in the nation. (Source: the Alabama Political Reporter)

Representation of Children and Reentry Services

In 2018, EJI won reduced sentences for Trina Garnett and Darren McCraken, both of whom were sentenced to die in prison at the age of 14. EJI has also won reduced sentences for 40 juveniles in Alabama that were sentenced to death without parole and in 2017 secured the release of three more individuals that were sentenced to life imprisonment in Louisiana.

In addition to assisting individual children, EJI has also actualized national policies. In 2010, EJI helped end mandatory life without parole sentences for all children. EJI had taken the case of Joe Sullivan, a mentally disabled 13-year-old who was sentenced to die in prison for a nonhomicide, to the Supreme Court. EJI’s work on the case resulted in a ban on death sentences without parole for all juveniles convicted of nonhomicide charges. Sullivan was released in 2018 after 25 years of confinement. The organization, which won release, parole, and/or reduced sentences for 12 clients in 2019, continues to represent 100 clients who have not received the relief they deserve.

For children like Sullivan, an essential part of release from jail is the process of re-integrating into society. Enter PREP, EJI’s Post-Release Education and Preparation program, which serves as a re-entry service for people coming out of prison. After his release, Sullivan joined PREP, which provides job training, housing, education, and therapy as well as other services for over 12 years.

Wrongful Convictions

Since 1989, there have been over 2500 cases where people have been wrongly convicted. Arising from mistaken or false testimonies, faulty forensics, false testimonies, targeting of vulnerable populations, and misconduct by police, judges, and prosecutors, these wrongful convictions disproportionately affect African Americans. Even though African Americans make up only 13% of the nation’s population, they constitute 47% of exonerations.

EJI attorneys have challenged and reversed sentences for multiple innocent individuals. One prominent case is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row in Birmingham, Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Hinton had been charged for two capital murders in 1985 based solely on the fact that the revolver from his mother’s home seemed to match the bullets used in the murders. After EJI spent 15 years appealing to reopen Hinton’s case, the Supreme Court finally ordered a new trial in 2014, where three professional firearm examiners concluded that it was impossible to match the bullets from the murders to a single gun and that the Hintons’ gun most definitely could not have fired one of the bullets.

Anthony Ray Hinton upon his exoneration talking to Nightline in his first days of freedom in 2014. Mr. Hinton spent 30 years in prison, on death row for a crime he did not commit. (Source: EJI)

In another case, EJI overturned the conviction of Diane Tucker, a woman with an intellectual disability who was accused of murdering her sister’s baby. EJI won Tucker’s release by procuring medical evidence that the baby had never existed.

Outside the courtroom, EJI also works towards long-term solutions by increasing DNA testing and creating conviction integrity units around the country. These regional units can then monitor cases, helping to correct and prevent false convictions.

Death Penalty

EJI has uncovered strong evidence that the death penalty is disproportionately given to people of color and other vulnerable populations, including those who are mentally ill or financially disadvantaged. According to EJI’s website, African Americans comprise 42% of the people on death row, 34% of whom are executed. With regard to other vulnerable populations, 366 juveniles were executed before the death penalty for children was banned in 2005, and 1 out every 5 people on death row today suffer from a serious mental illness. Extra income can also mean the difference between life or death, as people from low-income backgrounds typically cannot afford effective lawyers, contributing to higher rates of wrongful convictions and death sentences.

Fighting to serve these vulnerable populations, EJI assists those on death row who are innocent or deprived of due process by representing them in trial, on appeal, and in post-conviction proceedings. EJI provides direct legal representation to over 100 condemned prisoners on Alabama’s death row and provides assistance, consulting, and case management to many more. EJI also produces reports that educate the public about capital punishment and how public safety can be undermined by death sentences.

The landmark case Madison v. Alabama is a prime example of EJI’s long-term impact on policies surrounding the death penalty. In October 2018, EJI began arguing for Vernon Madison, a condemned prisoner on Alabama death row, who suffers from severe dementia. Since Madison’s neurological disability was debilitating to the point where he could no longer understand where he was, EJI asserted that his execution would be cruel and unusual, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In February 2019, EJI won the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that blocked Madison’s execution and also transformed the legal landscape for people with mental disabilities in jail. The ruling now adds protections for prisoners who suffer from a mental illness or any neurological-related disease or injury.

Courtroom sketch of Bryan Stevenson in the watershed 2019 case Madison v Alabama. (Source: SCOTUS Blog)

Public Education

Beyond its direct impact in the legal system, EJI also creates educational material to teach the public about the racial and criminal injustices in America. Since 2017, the staff at EJI has given hundreds of presentations regarding the need for criminal justice reform. EJI has also distributed thousands of reports on slavery, lynching, and segregation and created a curriculum for teachers and educators to use. For those that want to learn more about EJI, HBO aired the documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality in 2019, which highlights the struggle Bryan Stevenson and EJI faces to create a more just criminal justice system.

Education and Remembrance via Creation of Public Memorials

In April 2018, EJI unveiled two educational sites in Montgomery, Alabama: the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Built on top of a warehouse where black slaves used to be imprisoned, the museum uses rare firsthand accounts from enslaved people as well as immersive technology to teach visitors about the history of racial injustice against African Americans, including slavery, segregation, lynching, police violence, and a biased criminal justice system. Neighboring the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial embodies America’s first memorial commemorating the legacy of slavery, racial terror lynching, Jim Crow laws, and contemporary violence against our black citizens. Since their opening, the museum and memorial have hosted over 650,000 visitors from around the world.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Each steel column represents a county in the U.S. where black Americans were lynched, written on the columns are the names of those individuals. (Source: EJI)

Why Donate to EJI?

We cannot maintain the status quo of racial and criminal inequities in America. At rem, we strongly believe that EJI has one of the most effective models to challenge these disparities from the ground up, beginning with fair representation in the legal system. Donate to the Equal Justice Initiative today to contribute to the criminal justice reform of tomorrow. Be the change you wish to see.

Supplementary Materials

Read EJI’s report on the legacy of slavery in the United States here:

Read EJI’s report on lynching in America here:

Written by Laura Tsai and Tahmid Ahmed. All three are members of the rem team and Harvard College’s Class of 2022.

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