Deep in Alabama, just a 90-minute drive north from Mobile, you’ll find the small town of Monroeville, home of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee.
The folks of Monroeville, circa 1991, are proud of their literary heritage. Ask anyone, and they’ll point you to the To Kill a Mockingbird museum down the way. Or to the courthouse, where Lee had Atticus Finch make his fabled defense of a black man falsely accused of rape. It’s a civil rights landmark, they’ll tell you.
Perhaps a few—too few—would see a sad irony, too.
Walter McMillian, better known as Johnny D, is on death row. The black man was convicted of killing a white woman named Ronda Morrison: Prosecutors said that he walked into a laundromat on Nov. 1, 1986, and shot her several times in the back. In a trial that took just a day and a half, he was tried and convicted by an almost all-white jury, which recommended life in prison. Not harsh enough, the judge decided, and slapped Johnny D with the death penalty.
Never mind that the crime’s main witness was a convicted felon himself who had plenty of reason to frame McMillian. Never mind the lack of motive or physical evidence. Never mind that a score of witnesses said he was at a fish fry when the crime took place. (The fact that those witnesses were black, apparently, made their testimony unwanted.)
Enter Bryan Stevenson, a graduate of Harvard Law School who rejected a position at a posh law firm to head a non-profit legal team called the Equal Justice Initiative—an organization that gives convicted felons (particularly those on death row) the sort of legal help that might’ve escaped them the first time around. He looks into McMillian’s case and finds all sorts of inconsistencies—so many, in fact, that he wonders whether anyone read the evidence at all. If anyone deserves a second chance at justice, it’s McMillian.
But Monroeville’s power brokers don’t want to hear it. They got their man, never mind the evidence. They knew McMillian was guilty just by looking at him. And if Ronda Morrison’s spirit doesn’t rest easy, her parents sure do.
Maybe if Stevenson had looked more like Atticus Finch—a white man born and bred in the south, a man who knew everyone from the mayor and sheriff to the lady serving coffee at the corner diner—Monroeville’s power brokers might’ve listened to him.
But Stevenson’s a Delaware-born, East-coast educated black man. And Sheriff Tate and D.A. Tommy Champan don’t take kindly to carpet-bagging northerners telling them how to run their town.
Bryan Stevenson, in this movie at least, looks like a candidate for sainthood. We hear hints of his childhood, how he grew up poor, in a neighborhood not so different from McMillian’s own; and we see how his desire to help people on death row first germinated. When he leaves for Alabama, Bryan tells his nervous mother that she “always taught me to fight for the people need it the most.”
Outside these brief early snippets, though, we don’t see much of the guy’s personal life. And no wonder, given his single-minded dedication to his work and the clients he defends. He stays up all night working, pushes tirelessly against unfair barriers and even risks his life. And those who work with Bryan sometimes risk theirs, too.
Eva Ansley, who works closely with Bryan, notes that unlike most lawyers, Bryan gets close to his clients—so much so that they become nearly family to him. And when one of those clients is sent to the electric chair in spite of Bryan’s help, the condemned man thinks so highly of Bryan that he has the Army (from which he was honorably discharged) send the flag he earned to the lawyer.
While “Johnny D” McMillian is no saint (as we’ll see), he becomes a strong, faithful friend to many fellow death-row prisoners. When one suffers a panic attack after getting an execution date, Johnny D walks him through calming breathing and visualization exercises. “Whatever you did,” Johnny tells the man, “Your life is still meaningful.” And when that man is led to the execution chamber, Johnny D leads a noisy salute to the condemned. He’s deeply saddened by how he hurt his family, too, and wants to do whatever he can to make amends. And sometimes, when the case against him seems to hit a wall, Johnny D encourages Bryan, rather than the other way around.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.