Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Modern Saint in Montgomery

The classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" burned the image of Atticus Finch, the righteous, brilliant Alabama defense lawyer, into the American consciousness. In our day, the real-life Atticus Finch (or one of them) is a Montgomery attorney named Bryan Stevenson. Bryan has spent his 20+ year career representing impovershed men and women on Alabama's death row and juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole. Although, after his 1985 graduation from Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, Bryan could have made a fortune as a rising African-American litigation superstar, he instead moved to Atlanta and joined the Southern Center for Human Rights. He moved to Alabama in 1989 and founded the Equal Justice Initiative.

The Associated Press reported today that Bryan won the 2009 Gruber Justice Prize for his longtime work representing death row inmates, indigent defendants and juveniles.

From the AP story:

Stevenson said the prize will go into the budget of the Equal Justice Initiative, which he said lost a source of funding when a major donor lost money in the investments of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff.

A release from the Gruber Foundation said Stevenson and his staff had been responsible "for reversals and reduced sentences in more than 75 death penalty cases."

U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald of Tennessee said in the release that Stevenson won the award for "securing access to justice for those most in need of protection from discrimination."

The American Bar Association honors Bryan on its website, saying:

As one of the most effective public interest lawyers in the country, and one of the nation's leading critics of the death penalty, Stevenson is a highly sought-after speaker. In addition to his views on the unreliability of the death penalty and its disproportionate use for the poor and people of color, he fervently believes that "no one is beyond hope, beyond redemption."

When speaking to students of all ages, Stevenson exhorts them to become passionate advocates for causes in which they believe. He encourages them to recognize the power that they have and advises them, "don't be afraid to change the world."

Bryan Stevenson continues to work tirelessly, devoting his life to helping disadvantaged people in the Deep South. "I feel blessed each day," he has said, "to be engaged in something that gives my life meaning, that keeps me spiritually alive and aware."

He has won wide recognition for his work. Among the prestigious awards Stevenson has earned are the MacArthur Foundation's "Genius Award," the ACLU's National Medal of Liberty, and the American Bar Association's Wisdom Award for Public Service. In 1996, the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers named him Public Interest Lawyer of the Year. He has also received honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Washington University and Eastern University.

My two cents: This guy is real. He is unusually kind and thoughtful -- not just as attorneys go (a low bar, to be sure), but in general. He believes deeply that no person is the sum of their worst acts. He lives very modestly, despite his many awards and accomplishments. I would propose him for the Supreme Court (as if anyone pays attention to my suggestions), but I think he'd rather be meeting clients in prison than deciding tax and antitrust cases.

If there are saints in our age, Bryan is one. This was a well-deserved award.

Congratulations to our Atticus Finch.

1 comment:

Windy Days said...

That's the best human interest story that I've heard in quite a while. Making a comparison to Atticus Finch is pretty bold. But this man sounds like he well deserves it. Thanks - Windy