The Current

'Very clear line' between lynching and death penalty: Alabama lawyer

Bryan Stevenson goes to work every day on a mission — to get black men off Alabama's death row. The author and lawyer shares how the legacy of slavery and lynching still lives in America today in his book, Just Mercy.

Alabama lawyer Bryan Stevenson on one of the death row inmates he couldn't save

5 years ago
Duration 1:04
Alabama lawyer Bryan Stevenson on one of the death row inmates he couldn't save 1:04

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» The Current's The Disruptors

As a co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson is a disruptor of chronic injustices who fights for the lives of prisoners on Alabama's death row.

"[In the U.S.], 156 people exonerated after being sentenced to death. That means for every 10 people that have been executed in the U.S., we've identified one innocent person on the row, which is a really shameful rate of error," Stevenson tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, left, walks with Anthony Ray Hinton out of the Jefferson County jail, April 3, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. Hinton spent nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row. (Hal Yeager/The Associated Press)

In his new book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson says that when lynching stopped, the death penalty started.

"[There's a] very clear line between our history of lynching and the modern death penalty."

He tells Tremonti when the southern states moved away from public lynchings, "they essentially moved the lynchings indoors and that's when you see a great increase in the number of death sentences being imposed."

When Stevenson looks at the injustices of the present, he sees acutely how the wrongs of the past — the legacy of slavery and lynching continue to reverberate today —  in U.S. race relations, the justice system, and the frequent police shootings of black men, as we've seen this week in Tulsa, Okla. and Charlotte, N.C.

"Why do we want to kill all the broken people in this country? What is it about us, that when we see brokenness, we want to crush it, we want to hurt it, we want to kill it," says Stevenson.

But Stevenson sees "power in brokeness."  

"It is really the broken who understand how compassion is supposed to work."

He tells Tremonti that he doesn't do his job because no one will. He does it because he's broken too.

"It's the broken who have an insight into justice. It's the broken who have some appreciation for what it means to be restored, redeemed, rehabilitated, recovered."

"And in many ways it's our community and standing with the broken that will get us closer to justice."

Listen to the full conversation.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.