By Meg Grant
November 27, 1995 12:00 PM

BRYAN STEVENSON STEPS FROM HIS dusty ’88 Corolla, smooths his rumpled blazer and approaches the guardhouse at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Ala. He has come, literally, on a matter of life and death—to consult with convicted killer Jesse Morrison, 42, who shot a woman clerk during a robbery in 1977 and is one of 136 Alabama inmates sentenced to die. Most are represented by Stevenson. “In Alabama, 67 percent of death-row inmates are robber-murderers,” says the 36-year-old lawyer. “I’m not minimizing those crimes, but when we execute someone, we’re saying life has no purpose. I’ve met people on death row who are dangerous or disturbed, but none about whom I could say, ‘This person’s life has no purpose.’ ”

Stevenson’s purpose is transparently clear: to have the death penalty eliminated in Alabama. Founder in 1989 of the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center (now called the Equal Justice Initiative), he has worked with his staff of five meagerly paid attorneys to get the death sentences of more than 40 Alabama inmates overturned. Although plenty of people in Alabama disagree with Stevenson’s mission, few doubt his passion—or his sincerity. A Harvard-trained lawyer who could prosper in private practice, he lives instead in a sparsely furnished, one-bedroom apartment and pays himself only $27,000 a year. Last June he was awarded a $230,000 MacArthur Foundation grant, which he donated to the center to help pay his lawyers. “I told him to set some of that money aside for a pension,” says Ruth Friedman, a colleague. “But he won’t do it.”

Stevenson, in addition to opposing the death penalty per se, believes Alabama applies it unfairly to blacks and the poor. “Race and class bias are killing people,” says Stevenson. Statistically, he says, “white or black, you are 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, and 22 times more likely to get death if you’re black and the victim is white. The death penalty is used to send messages to people of color that we can still kill you if you cross the line.”

Not everyone shares Stevenson’s interpretation. Chuck Spurlock, spokesman for the Alabama attorney general’s office, says that while his state has a history of using the death penalty in a racially biased way, “that is not a problem today. The race argument is a tired bromide of people against the death penalty.”

For Miriam Shehane, who is white, race had nothing to do with the horror of losing her 21-year-old daughter Quenette, who was raped and murdered in 1976 by three black college students. Two of them received life sentences, but one, Wallace Norrell Thomas, who was tried separately, died by electrocution in 1989, despite Stevenson’s efforts. Thomas’s last 15 minutes were spent with Stevenson. “We were standing there holding hands,” he recalls, “and [Thomas] was telling me how, from the time he’d woken up that day, people were asking how they could help. More people asked what they could do to help him in the previous 14 hours than in the first 19 years of his life. Where were these people when he was 3 and being physically abused or when he was 9 and experimenting with heroin? I know where they were when he was 19 and committed this crime. They were lined up to execute him.”

Such sentiments carry no weight with Shehane, who is president of VOCAL (Victims of Crime and Leniency), a victims’ rights organization based in Montgomery. Had Stevenson succeeded on Thomas’s behalf, she says, “I would think he was equally responsible for my daughter’s death.”

Ironically, Stevenson can empathize better than most people with her pain. When he was 16, his maternal grandfather, Clarence L. Golden, was stabbed to death in his Philadelphia home during a burglary. The killers received life sentences, an outcome Stevenson thought fair. “Because my grandfather was older, his murder seemed particularly cruel,” Stevenson says. “But I came from a world where we valued redemption over revenge.”

His mother, Alice, a 66-year-old retired bookkeeper, agrees. “I sometimes have difficulties with the horrible crimes Bryan’s clients are charged with,” she says, “but his bent toward the underdog is a deep family trait.”

Devout members of the African Methodist Church, Stevenson’s parents (his father, Howard Sr., 66, was a food-factory worker) still live in the modest, Milton, Del, house where they raised Bryan and his siblings, Howard Jr., 37, and Christy, 35. Determined to give Bryan a good education, they enrolled him in a public elementary school in 1966 a year before it was officially integrated (Mrs. Stevenson lobbied hard with school officials to allow Bryan in and won). Even after it was integrated, Stevenson remembers, his teachers kept him from playing with the white kids there. In junior high his guidance counselor tried to push him into vocational training. Once in Cape Henlopen high school, though, Bryan honed his debating skills on the speech team and in 1977 won a scholarship to Eastern College in St. David’s, Pa. Originally a philosophy major, he switched to law when he realized “no one was going to hire me to philosophize.”

Graduating with a 3.8 average in 1981, Stevenson won a full scholarship to Harvard Law School, where, as part of a class on race and poverty litigation, he worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represents death-row inmates throughout the South. He had found his calling. “What was at the end of the road for the average Harvard lawyer,” says Stephen Bright, director of SCHR, “was for Bryan an empty way to spend his life. He’s driven by a spiritual feeling to minister to the poorest people in our society.”

After graduating in 1985, Stevenson moved to Atlanta and joined SCHR full-time. Four years later, when four Alabama inmates were executed within a three-month period, he set up shop in a two-story clapboard house behind a Montgomery tire store not far from his $375-a-month apartment. In his spare time he indulges in playing gospel and jazz on an electric keyboard. He admits being romantically unattached and blames his job. “It’s difficult to do what I’m doing and be married and have kids,” he says.

Still, there are other rewards. In 1993, Stevenson won the release of Walter McMillian from Holman state prison after McMillian had served six years on death row. A black logger from Monroeville, Ala., McMillian, now 54, was convicted in 1988 of the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white female dry-cleaning clerk. When Stevenson took on the case in 1990, he discovered that the charges against his client were in part the result of local resentment for McMillian’s romantic involvement with a white woman. Eventually prosecutors admitted that McMillian had been convicted on perjured testimony and withheld evidence. “I’ve learned to forgive, but it’s hard not to be angry,” says McMillian. As for Stevenson, he thinks of him, he says, “like a brother.”

Such happy endings, and the hope of helping others who, Stevenson says, “are literally dying for legal assistance,” are what keep him going. He’ll stop, he says, only when “the justice system works fairly for everyone.” And he truly believes that day will come. “I’ve always had to believe things I haven’t seen,” he says. “And I do believe there will be relief.”