*Spoilers for "Just Mercy" below*
“Just Mercy” is a movie based on the real-life lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who battled injustice in the legal system. The film, which stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, mostly focuses on his efforts to exonerate one of his first-ever clients, Walter McMillian.
McMillian was falsely convicted of killing Ronda Morrison, a white 18-year-old dry-cleaning employee, in 1986. Even though McMillian had a strong alibi for the murder, he was found guilty after only a day and a half long trial in 1987, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Stevenson took on McMillian’s case post-conviction, and provided evidence that the prosecution’s key witnesses had lied on the stand. He got McMillian’s conviction overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 1993, according to a 1993 New York Times report.
So what happened to Stevenson after his success with McMillian's case?
After working with McMillian, Stevenson continued with his lifelong journey to fight injustice.
Stevenson now runs Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit he founded, in 1989. The Equal Justice Initiative or EJI “provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons,” according to its website.
The nonprofit states, "We challenge the death penalty and excessive punishment and we provide re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people.”
Stevenson and his staff have now won reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 135 wrongly convicted death row inmates, according to the nonprofit's site. Additionally, EJI claims that he and his staff have reportedly "won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced."
Before founding EJI, Stevenson represented death row inmates through the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center, which was a federally funded death penalty defense organization. After he transformed the center into the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, he and his team quickly gained momentum on clearly the wrongfully convicted. By 1995, he and a staff of five “meagerly paid attorneys,” were able to overturn 40 Alabama inmates' execution sentences, according to a 1995 PEOPLE story.
Stevenson is still winning cases, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia at the United States Supreme Court, according to the EJI.
He and EJI are based in Alabama, the same place where his career took off.
In addition to founding and leading the EJI, Stevenson is also a professor of law at the New York University School of Law.
Last year, he received the Benjamin Franklin Award from the American Philosophical Society which is the “highest award for distinguished public service and the sciences,” according to the American Philosophical Society.
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