Right now, 4783 miles from where I sit in London, an innocent man named Rodney Reed sits on death row. Over the last few months, his case has garnered attention from prominent figures in abolition, such as Sister Helen Prejean, whose activism gets depicted in the 1995 Tim Robbins’ picture Dead Man Walking. She has unequivocally championed his innocence alongside his lawyers from non-profit organisation The Innocence Project. Prejean isn’t the only notable personality to continue this conversation. She resides in the company of Kim Kardashian West, Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna and many others who have joined the fight for justice.
On October 3rd, I unknowingly take my place somewhere among this list. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy was a last-minute addition to 2019’s London Film Festival line-up, after a prosperous reception at TIFF. Michael B. Jordan portrays Bryan Stevenson, the man dubbed as a real-life superhero by those closest to him. Macarthur Grant winning Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit built on pure passion and hell-bent determination that focuses on representing the poor, the disfavoured and the innocent in Montgomery Alabama, 100 miles from the home of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The film’s title partners that of Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 New York Times Bestseller. The book divulges the inherent racism of the American Criminal Justice System and challenges the way we see society’s most vulnerable.
Stevenson’s autobiography shares stories of many of his clients but Just Mercy, the film, centres itself on one particular man; Walter McMillian. Jamie Foxx steps into this role, embodying McMillian’s quiet but steely essence with earnest. His imprisonment in 1987 was highly unique in its handling. McMillian, immediately taken to death row upon arrest and waited 15 months before being seen in court, was tried in a different state to the one he was arrested in and had an all-white jury. The jury voted on a life sentence, which Judge Robert E. Lee Key overruled, sentencing him to death. A 28-year-old Bryan Stevenson took on the case in 1988, which is where Just Mercy begins.
McMillian’s story may have spanned the length of six years from 1987 to 1993, but movies have a fascinating way of translating the past into the present day. Five years on from McMillian’s exoneration, Rodney Reed gets charged with two counts of capital murder, and after four hours of contemplation from an all-white jury, he gets sentenced to death. Similarly to Mr. McMillian, national debates have sparked around Reed’s innocence in recent months both prior and post his November 20th, 2019 execution date which thankfully got stayed, alongside granting him a new trial. We can only pray that his outcome will imitate that of McMillian’s.
“While we were incarcerated people were telling us there’s a sign in Cullman, Alabama that says, ‘don’t let the sun go down on your black [censored]’,” became one of the many shocking things new friend, David Garlock, shares with me during a Skype discussion. David is a former client of Bryan Stevenson and has an appearance in Just Mercy. Although Garlock grew up in Seattle, he moved to Alabama ten months before he and his brother were arrested and charged with taking the life of their childhood abuser in 1999. “I kept asking what sentence I was going to get,” Alabama is one of the leaders in capital punishment penalties. At only 20 years old, Garlock narrowly escaped this reality and was sentenced instead to 25 years, an equally bleak future for a man whose life was yet to blossom. “We didn’t have any money, so we had to have court-appointed lawyers.” David’s case is testimony to Bryan Stevenson’s proclamation that “we have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent”. David recites this quote as we speak, explaining that “if we had lawyers and money, we probably wouldn’t have got the 25 years”.
Rodney Reed, Walter McMillian and David Garlock have something in common – they are victims of a failing system, yes, but they all embody a limitless supply of hope and compassion. “I’m looking to this year with hope and optimism,” is a line from Rodney Reed’s January 3rd letter to a Facebook page ran by friends and allies, “I’m feeling very grateful for this moment, and I’m grateful to every single one of you for standing by my side”. Rodney has been in Texas’ Polunsky Unit since 1998, where 73% of inmates are people of colour, a shocking statistic in a state that is 73.5% white – despite these odds, he remains hopeful.
David Garlock is now a graduate of Eastern University and the Lancaster Program Director for New Person Ministries. The non-profit aids the transition from prison to the free world for returning citizens. “Some of the guys wake up every day and take a picture of the sunset,” he tells me, reminding me that ordinary and the mundane are a privilege and our ability to choose is a gift, “people in prison only make 100 choices a day, where people in the free world make 10,000”. He is grateful that upon release he was received with little judgement and has been able to share his story without fear of animosity. Most recently, that story gets real estate in international cinemas where he makes an appearance in Just Mercy, among three other of Bryan Stevenson’s former clients. When asked by Stevenson if he’d like to participate, he exclaimed: “Is that even a question… come on, of course, I want to be in a movie!”
Bryan’s initial approach was less enthusiastic, however. “He really didn’t want to do the movie,” David tells me, but the power to change the narrative compelled him to take a chance. The debate on capital punishment is one that’ll always remain contentious, but Bryan poses an interesting question which he hopes will be the forefront of future discussions on reform; not ‘do people deserve to die’ but ‘do we deserve to kill’. He argues this requires a perfect system, a debate this movie confidently quashes.
Each of the above stories have different timelines from the eighties right up to the present day, attestation to the lack of development in Criminal Justice Reform. Bryan Stevenson, David Garlock and others like them, however, are the silver lining, refusing to shy away from the hard discussions as they push the hegemonic boundaries of justice . “Sometimes you’ve got to stand when everybody else is sitting, sometimes you’ve got to speak when everybody else is silent,” Stevenson’s ethos hopes to be the anthem of our future. If those hit hardest by the “injustice system” can let their hope run free, we should stand alongside them and fight.
Learn more about Bryan Stevenson and EJI: http://eji.org
New Person Ministries: http://www.newpersonministries.org
Follow: @DavidLeegarlock @eji_org @innocence