This New Documentary Illustrates The Correlation Between Lynchings And Black Americans On Death Row
"True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality" follows lawyers in the South, as they try to change a system with roots that go back to slavery.
Anthony Ray Hinton spent a decade in solitary confinement awaiting the death penalty before the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) took on his case. Despite overwhelming evidence and witnesses who could attest to his innocence, it took an additional 16 years before his release from an Alabama prison. Hinton's case is only one example of the groundbreaking work done by lawyer Bryan Stevenson and others at the Equal Justice Initiative, which is now featured in the HBO documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality.
Along with his team of lawyers at EJI, Bryan Stevenson has worked for decades representing people on death row and children unfairly imprisoned throughout the country. In addition to his work in the courtroom, he has become a well-known advocate for wholesale changes to the criminal justice system. He's fought a number of cases to the Supreme Court, even managing to win a landmark case that changed U.S. history; because of his efforts, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for people under 17 were unconstitutional.
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Through EJI, Stevenson has exonerated more than 125 people sentenced to death unfairly and secured the release of hundreds of others.
YouTube | HBO
The documentary follows Stevenson and his team, as they work to exonerate those who are unfairly sentenced to death and reform a criminal justice system that continues to imprison Black women, men and children at astounding rates. Since the 1980s, Stevenson has worked tirelessly in Alabama to fight the state's discriminatory justice system, and is now the executive director of EJI, which he founded.
On top of its legal work, EJI was the brains and might behind Montgomery, Alabama's Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, one of the first museums dedicated to American victims of lynching.
In an interview with Blavity during a June 21 event commemorating the documentary, senior EJI lawyer Sia Sanneh said their work in the museum mirrored their efforts in the courtroom.
"People can understand the concept of lynching, but they can't feel the human loss, the suffering, the disruption of family, unless you see the names. That's why we do the design that way; we want people to understand the geographic scope. We want people to understand that there are places in this period and most of the entire South where there was no safe place to be a person of color," Sanneh said.
"There was no refuge county in Alabama, or Mississippi, or anywhere. It was just this constant fear, and thats where terrorism looks like. We wanted to tell that story, but do it in a way that helps people understand it and understand it in a personal way. For us, that's an idea that comes from the courtroom. You have to get someone to understand your client as a human being, as a person with a life, as a person with a family, as a person whose life matters."
Stevenson also said in speeches, interviews and in the film that the museum was an integral part of EJI's work with death row prisoners, because the legacy of mass incarceration now can be traced directly back to slavery and Jim Crow.
"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?'" he said in an interview with Mashable.
YouTube | Equal Justice Initiative
"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,” Stevenson continued.
Sanneh said Hinton was only one example of the hundreds of people that were unfairly convicted in show trials with little evidence.
"Where does that come from? Where does this resistance to the value of his life come from? Why is it so hard to even get a judge to look at the evidence?" Sanneh said.
"There was a test that took one hour, that could have freed him. We could not get any court, any decision maker, anybody to do this test. It took the United States Supreme Court in a 9-0 unanimous decision in 2015 to overturn what the Alabama courts had done."
She said that after the Civil War, white Birmingham citizens were particularly infuriated by the end of slavery and came up with a new way to force Black people to work: the prison system. Through convict leasing, Alabama slave owners were able to continue forcing Black people into servitude against their will.
To a large extent, this system was never changed and was instead used throughout different eras to terrorize Black communities she told Blavity.
"What happened with Mr. Hinton, which is all too common, is a short trial. He was arrested and couldn't afford a good attorney. The police actually said to him: we don't care if you did or didn't commit this crime. You will be convicted," she said.
"They gave him five reasons why. You're Black, the judge who presides the case is going to be white. The prosecutor is going to be white. You’re going to have an all white jury. And a white man is gonna say you committed this crime. And that spells conviction. He went to trial, really a show trial. And he was convicted very quickly."
During an interview with Sanneh at an event promoting the documentary, writer Jelani Cobb reminded the crowd that this same situation was brought to light recently in reference to the Central Park Five. Cobb said he spoke with someone on the side of the prosecutors right before the Netflix show on the five exonerated men was released, asking whether he would change anything.
The prosecutor told Cobb that he "could have gone either way on it," in terms of whether the five were guilty or not.
"If you could go either way on this, how can you allow someone to spend 14 years in prison?" Cobb said.
"How do you wake up each morning knowing that?"
While both Stevenson and Sanneh said EJI's main focus was on legal efforts, they quickly realized that their work was taking place within the larger context of America's racial history which had yet to be dealt with in any meaningful way. That, they said, was the impetus behind the lynching museum and the documentary.
"My mentor says this in the film: there’s law and then there's justice," Sanneh said."One of the challenges we have in our current system is that we have a set of laws and structures that produce outcomes that are so disconnected from what justice is," she continued. "But it's even more than that. We have laws, but laws are just ideas. We’re learning this in a lot of parts of American life right now. A law is an idea that a court has to make a reality and in states like Alabama, thats a challenge because there is not a statewide public defender system."
EJI now has four main pillars of work that they take on: racial justice, children in prison, mass incarceration and the death penalty. They continue to represent Alabama's death row inmates but are also expanding to represent people across the country.
This is not the only movie that will feature Stevenson though. Michael B. Jordan has signed on to play Stevenson next year in a film adaptation of his best-selling memoir Just Mercy, which will see Jamie Foxx play the first man on death row that he helped.
Sanneh told Blavity she hopes the film encourages people to come to the museum, learn more about the country's history of racial terrorism and get involved in making change through activism or elections.
"I really hope that the film helps more people understand the challenges and injustices of our time and their historical roots. And helps people see the connections between the narratives that sustained slavery and allowed slavery to continue and how those narratives have stayed with us even as we’ve had legal and policy victories at every era," she said.
"The narratives have often evolved and continue to poison our society. I think thats something Ihope people take away. It shows people that there is so much work to be done and so much hope for the future if we are willing to confront this difficult past.
The documentary was directed and produced by six-time Emmy-winner Peter Kunhardt as well as Emmy-winners Teddy Kunhardt and George Kunhardt. True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality is now available to stream on HBO.