Bar News - September 20, 2017
President's Perspective: Together, We Can Preserve the Rule of Law
By: Scott Harris
A couple of weeks ago my daughter handed me a copy of Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. Every fall her college picks a book designed to spark a conversation around an important topic. Just Mercy is this year’s book. If you’re looking for a good end-of-summer read, this might be just the thing.
Stevenson graduated from the Harvard Law School in the mid-1980s. After graduation, he went to work with the Southern Center for Human Rights, and later established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). His book recounts the efforts of the Southern Center and EJI to assist those mostly black men sentenced to death.
One of the cases Stevenson details in his book is that of Walter McMillan. McMillan was a black man living in Alabama who ran his own business, worked hard, provided for his family and had a reputation in his community as a reliable, humorous man. The authorities in Monroe County, Alabama took note of McMillan when his intimate relationship with a white woman became public knowledge. (I was reminded that in some parts of the South, interracial marriage was still illegal when the United States Supreme Court struck those laws down as unconstitutional in 1967 – not that long ago.)
McMillan’s notoriety drew authorities’ attention again when, in November 1986, a young girl was found dead on the floor of a local dry cleaner. McMillan was arrested for the murder even though he was miles away at the time, as many members of his local church could testify. Despite the lack of evidence against him, McMillan was locked up on death row for the year it took his case to come to trial. The trial was to an almost all-white jury – the county attorney having assured that – and was presided over by a judge who was plainly biased. After a couple of days of trial, and a couple of hours’ deliberation, McMillan was sentenced to death. He would spend six years on death row.
As Stevenson and his team later proved, the elected local sheriff, with the complicity of the elected county attorney, ginned up a line of scarcely believable perjured testimony in support of the case against McMillan. Each of these governmental officers seemed to be satisfied to have contributed to McMillan’s wrongful conviction. With unyielding effort and skill, Stevenson was able to establish that McMillan did not and could not have committed the murder. McMillan was finally set free.
The impact of systemic failure on the wrongly condemned is obvious. It is difficult even to imagine what it must be like to be confined to a tiny cell for 23 hours a day, waiting your turn to be put to death, for a crime someone else committed. A community that fears it will likewise not be protected by the rule of law suffers as well. They too live in fear that their liberty and property may be taken from them, too, for no good reason.
We’re lucky in New Hampshire to have judges who are free from the pressures of reelection and public defenders who are highly skilled at assuring the rights of the accused. That said, Stevenson underscores the corrosive impact on a community when lawyers are unskilled or uncaring, or the system biased and unhinged from the principle that justice must be available, equally and for all.
Just Mercy reminds us that each time we fail to do our best, or the court is overburdened such that it cannot give its full attention to the problems presented there, the public’s faith in the principle of justice for all is whittled away, even if only a little. The risk is that those small infractions add up, so that the system on which we depend to make a living no longer has the public’s support.
The good news is that, as members of the Bar, we can make a difference in assuring that the rule of law is preserved. As a Bar Association, we work hard to establish meaningful educational programs, peer networks and support for the courts. As a Bar Association, our hope is that if there is something you think we can do to help you to serve your clients’ needs that you will tell us.