Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of the criminal justice system.
One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Stevenson into a tangle of conspiracy, political machinations, and legal brinksmanship — and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice.
“Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison,” Stevenson writes. His telling of the McMillian case is captured in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and his book will be discussed by faculty, staff members and new SMU students as the 2016 Common Reading on Sunday, Aug. 21, before Opening Convocation.
The story is “[e]very bit as moving as To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways more so … a searing indictment of American criminal justice and a stirring testament to the salvation that fighting for the vulnerable sometimes yields,” wrote David Cole of The New York Review of Books in his review.
And Stevenson is “doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope,” wrote legal writer and novelist John Grisham, author of A Time to Kill, The Client and The Innocent Man.
Stevenson will visit the Hilltop on Thursday, Oct. 13, for a free and open Common Reading Public Lecture at 4:30 p.m. in McFarlin Auditorium. On the same night, at 8 p.m., he will deliver the Jones Day Lecture in SMU’s 2016-17 Tate Distinguished Lecture Series. Watch for more information in a future SMU Forum post and at the Common Reading website.