Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson


Higher Ground

I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old student at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and worried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prison—and had certainly never been to death row. When I learned that I would be visiting this prisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show.

Georgia’s death row is in a prison outside of Jackson, a remote town in a rural part of the state. I drove there by myself, heading south on I-75 from Atlanta, my heart pounding harder the closer I got. I didn’t really know anything about capital punishment and hadn’t even taken a class in criminal procedure yet. I didn’t have a basic grasp of the complex appeals process that shaped death penalty litigation, a process that would in time become as familiar to me as the back of my hand. When I signed up for this internship, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that I would actually be meeting condemned prisoners. To be honest, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a lawyer. As the miles ticked by on those rural roads, the more convinced I became that this man was going to be very disappointed to see me.

I studied philosophy in college and didn’t realize until my senior year that no one would pay me to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a “post-graduation plan” led me to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn’t require you to know anything. At Harvard, I could study law while pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, which appealed to me. I was uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, America’s history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another. It would have something to do with the things I’d already seen in life so far and wondered about, but I couldn’t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear.

Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry I’d made the wrong choice. Coming from a small college in Pennsylvania, I felt very fortunate to have been admitted, but by the end of my first year I’d grown disillusioned. At the time, Harvard Law School was a pretty intimidating place, especially for a twenty-one-year-old. Many of the professors used the Socratic method—direct, repetitive, and adversarial questioning—which had the incidental effect of humiliating unprepared students. The courses seemed esoteric and disconnected from the race and poverty issues that had motivated me to consider the law in the first place.

Many of the students already had advanced degrees or had worked as paralegals with prestigious law firms. I had none of those credentials. I felt vastly less experienced and worldly than my fellow students. When law firms showed up on campus and began interviewing students a month after classes started, my classmates put on expensive suits and signed up so that they could receive “fly-outs” to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, D.C. It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparing ourselves to do. I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school.

I spent the summer after my first year in law school working with a juvenile justice project in Philadelphia and taking advanced calculus courses at night to prepare for my next year at the Kennedy School. After I started the public policy program in September, I still felt disconnected. The curriculum was extremely quantitative, focused on figuring out how to maximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefits achieved and the costs created. While intellectually stimulating, decision theory, econometrics, and similar courses left me feeling adrift. But then, suddenly, everything came into focus.

I discovered that the law school offered an unusual one-month intensive course on race and poverty litigation taught by Betsy Bartholet, a law professor who had worked as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Unlike most courses, this one took students off campus, requiring them to spend the month with an organization doing social justice work. I