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Category Archives: Wrongful Convictions

Rikers Island Report: A ‘Deep-Seated Culture of Violence’

Prison

A much-anticipated investigative report by the Justice Department has uncovered what amounted to a chamber of horrors at Rikers Island, where teenagers were beaten and battered for minor infractions by correction officers who acted without fear of discovery or punishment by senior officials. The report, released on August 4 by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, documents “a deep-seated culture of violence” that demands immediate remedial action by New York City, which is now at risk of facing a federal lawsuit if it does not take the steps outlined in the report — which wisely calls for removing adolescents from the jail complex altogether.

The investigation, which focused mainly on conduct from 2011 through 2013, said that the “number of injuries sustained by adolescents is staggering ” and that the youths were in constant danger of physical harm even when they presented no risk to the system or safety of the staff. Nearly 44 percent of the adolescent male population in custody as of October 2012 had been subjected to the use of force by the correctional staff.

Further, the report said, force was routinely used not so much to keep order but for the express purpose of “inflicting injuries and pain.”

“Inmates are beaten as a form of punishment, sometimes in apparent retribution for some perceived disrespectful conduct,” it said, adding: “Correction officers improperly use injurious force in response to refusals to follow orders, verbal taunts, or insults, even when the inmate presents no threat to the safety or security of staff or other inmates.” Correction officers “frequently continue to strike inmates after they are clearly under control and effectively restrained, often attempting to justify their actions later by reporting that the inmate continued to resist.”

Officers who had made up their minds to inflict punishment carried out the beatings in areas they knew to be free of security cameras. The report also noted that “an astonishing number of incidents” took place in school areas, classrooms and hallways. Staff members who committed these heinous acts deserve to be prosecuted.

A departmental code of silence aided and abetted this brutal regime and shielded its practitioners from discovery and official rebuke. A departmental directive requiring staff who use or witness force — or who have been alleged to employ or witness force — to prepare a written report on the incident “prior to leaving the facility unless medically unable to do so” appears to have been “frequently and intentionally ignored.” In one instance in 2012, for example, it took an officer three months to file a memo on a beating incident. The investigating officers found the beating justified and made no mention of the officer’s failure to submit the report contemporaneously.

The report rightly calls for a complete overhaul in departmental operations. It recommends, for example, that adolescents be removed from Rikers Island, which houses mainly adults, and placed in a facility elsewhere. It insists that the city improve officer training, and that the procedures be followed for promptly and accurately reporting force incidents.

Most important, it calls on the city to completely reform the institutional culture of the jail system to ensure that violence is no longer tolerated. The United States attorney will need to stay engaged until these goals are met.

Reprint: A ‘Culture of Violence’ at Rikers Island | NYT Editorial Board

Related: U.S. Inquiry Finds a ‘Culture of Violence’ Against Teenage Inmates at Rikers Island -By Benjamin Weiser & Michael Schwirtz | NYT

 Op-Ed Contributor: Cecily McMillan on Brutality and Humiliation on Rikers Island | NYT

 

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Michael Brown and Black Men | Charles M. Blow

Michael Brown 2The killing of Michael Brown has tapped into something bigger than Michael Brown.

Brown was the unarmed 18-year-old black man who was shot to death Saturday by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo. There are conflicting accounts of the events that led to the shooting. There is an investigation by local authorities as well as one by federal authorities. There are grieving parents and a seething community. There are swarms of lawyers and hordes of reporters. There has been unrest. The president has appealed for reflection and healing.

There is an eerie echo in it all — a sense of tragedy too often repeated. And yet the sheer morbid, wrenching rhythm of it belies a larger phenomenon, one obscured by its vastness, one that can be seen only when one steps back and looks from a distance and with data: The criminalization of black and brown bodies — particularly male ones — from the moment they are first introduced to the institutions and power structures with which they must interact.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released “the first comprehensive look at civil rights from every public school in the country in nearly 15 years.” As the report put it: “The 2011-2012 release shows that access to preschool programs is not a reality for much of the country. In addition, students of color are suspended more often than white students, and black and Latino students are significantly more likely to have teachers with less experience who aren’t paid as much as their colleagues in other schools.”

Attorney General Eric Holder, remarking on the data, said: “This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool.”

But, of course, this criminalization stalks these children throughout their school careers.

As The New York Times editorial board pointed out last year: “Children as young as 12 have been treated as criminals for shoving matches and even adolescent misconduct like cursing in school. This is worrisome because young people who spend time in adult jails are more likely to have problems with law enforcement later on. Moreover, federal data suggest a pattern of discrimination in the arrests, with black and Hispanic children more likely to be affected than their white peers.”

A 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that while the average suspension rate for middle school students in 18 of the nation’s largest school districts was 11.2 percent in 2006, the rate for black male students was 28.3 percent, by far the highest of any subgroup by race, ethnicity or gender. And, according to the report, previous research “has consistently found that racial/ethnic disproportionality in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled.”

And these disparities can have a severe impact on a child’s likelihood of graduating. According to a report from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University that looked at Florida students, “Being suspended even once in 9th grade is associated with a two-fold increase in the risk for dropping out.”

Black male dropout rates are more than one and a half times those of white males, and when you look at the percentage of black men who graduate on time — in four years, not including those who possibly go on to get G.E.D.s, transfer to other schools or fail grades — the numbers are truly horrific. Only about half of these black men graduate on time.

Now, the snowball is rolling. The bias of the educational system bleeds easily into the bias of the criminal justice system — from cops to courts to correctional facilities. The school-to-prison pipeline is complete.

A May report by the Brookings Institution found: “There is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African American man without a high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties.”

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This is in part because trending policing disparities are particularly troubling in places like Missouri. As the editorial board of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out [a few weeks ago]: “Last year, for the 11th time in the 14 years that data has been collected, the disparity index that measures potential racial profiling by law enforcement in the state got worse. Black Missourians were 66 percent more likely in 2013 to be stopped by police, and blacks and Hispanics were both more likely to be searched, even though the likelihood of finding contraband was higher among whites.”

And this is the reality if the child actually survives the journey. That is if he has the internal fortitude to continue to stand with the weight on his shoulders. That is if he doesn’t find himself on the wrong end of a gun barrel. That is if his parents can imbue in him a sense of value while the world endeavors to imbue in him a sense of worthlessness.

Parents can teach children how to interact with authority and how to mitigate the threat response their very being elicits. They can wrap them in love to safeguard them against the bitterness of racial suspicion.

It can be done. It is often done. But it is heartbreaking nonetheless. What psychic damage does it do to the black mind when one must come to own and manage the fear of the black body?

The burden of bias isn’t borne by the person in possession of it but by the person who is the subject of it. The violence is aimed away from the possessor of its instruments — the arrow is pointed away from the killer and at the prey.

It vests victimhood in the idea of personhood. It steals sometimes, something precious and irreplaceable. It breaks something that’s irreparable. It alters something in a way that’s irrevocable.

We flinchingly choose a lesser damage.

But still, the hopelessness takes hold when one realizes that there is no amount of acting right or doing right, no amount of parental wisdom or personal resilience that can completely guarantee survival, let alone success.

Brown had just finished high school and was to start college this week. The investigation will hopefully clarify what led to his killing. But it is clear even now that his killing occurred in a context, one that we would do well to recognize.

Brown’s mother told a local television station after he was killed just weeks after his high school graduation: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway. ‘They’re going to try to take me out anyway.’”

Michael Brown and Black Men -By Charles M. Blow | NYT


Related: Echoes of Michael Brown’s Death in St. Louis’ Racially Charged Past -By Landon Jones | The Atlantic

Rage is the Right Response to Cops Executing Citizens’ | TYT 

The 10 Kinds of Trolls You Will Encounter When Talking About Michael Brown | Olivia A. Cole

Autopsy Shows Michael Brown Was Struck at Least 6 Times -Frances Robles & Julie Bosman | NYT

Here’s What Happens to Police Officers Who Shoot Unarmed Black Men -By Jaeah Lee & Katie Rose Quandt | MotherJones

Data on Transfer of Military Gear to Police Departments -By Matt Apuzzo | NYT

GoFundMe: Stop Profiting from Racially-Motivated Donors, Celebrating Michael Brown’s Death | ColorofChange.org (Petition)

 

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America: Leader of the Unfree World | The Atlantic

Handcuffs

On July 18, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to allow nearly 50,000 nonviolent federal drug offenders to seek lower sentences. The commission’s decision retroactively applied an earlier change in sentencing guidelines to now cover roughly half of those serving federal drug sentences. Endorsed by both the Department of Justice and prison-reform advocates, the move is a significant step forward—though in a global context, still modest—in reversing decades of mass incarceration.

How large is America’s prison problem? More than 2.4 million people are behind bars in the United States today, either awaiting trial or serving a sentence. That’s more than the combined population of 15 states, all but three U.S. cities, and the U.S. armed forces. They’re scattered throughout a constellation of 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 2,259 juvenile facilities, 3,283 local jails, and many more military, immigration, territorial, and Indian Country facilities.

Compared to the rest of the world, these numbers are staggering. Here’s how the United States’ incarceration rate stacks up against those of other modern liberal democracies like Britain and Canada:

Incarceration Rates

That graph is from a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, an invaluable resource on mass incarceration. (PPI also has a disturbing graph comparing state incarceration rates with those of other countries around the world.) “Although our level of crime is comparable to those of other stable, internally secure, industrialized nations,” the report says, “the United States has an incarceration rate far higher than any other country.”

Some individual states like Louisiana contribute disproportionately, but no state is free from mass incarceration. Disturbingly, many states’ prison populations outrank even those of dictatorships and illiberal democracies around the world. New York jails more people per capita than Rwanda, where tens of thousands await trial for their roles in the 1994 genocide. California, Illinois, and Ohio each have a higher incarceration rate than Cuba and Russia. Even Maine and Vermont imprison a greater share of people than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Egypt.

But mass incarceration is more than just an international anomaly; it’s also a relatively recent phenomenon in American criminal justice. Starting in the 1970s with the rise of tough-on-crime politicians and the War on Drugs, America’s prison population jumped eightfold between 1970 and 2010. (The graph below from The Sentencing Project does not include local or territorial prisons.)

US Prisons

These two metrics—the international and the historical—have to be seen together to understand how aberrant mass incarceration is. In time or in space, the warehousing of millions of Americans knows no parallels. In keeping with American history, however, it also disproportionately harms the non-white and the non-wealthy. “For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones,” wrote Adam Gopnik in his seminal 2012 article, The Caging of America.

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Overall, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

Mass incarceration’s effects are not confined to the cell block. Through the inescapable stigma it imposes, a brush with the criminal-justice system can hamstring a former inmate’s employment and financial opportunities for life. The effect is magnified for those who already come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Black men, for example, made substantial economic progress between 1940 and 1980 thanks to the post-war economic boom and the dismantling of de jure racial segregation. But mass incarceration has all but ground that progress to a halt: A new University of Chicago study found that black men are no better off in 2014 than they were when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act 50 years earlier.

The common retort is that people of color statistically commit more crimes, although criminologists and scholars like Michelle Alexander have consistently found no correlation between the incarceration rate and the crime rate. Claims about a “black pathology” also fall short. But police scrutiny often falls most heavily on people of color nonetheless. In New York City alone, officers carried out nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisk searches in 2011. Eighty-five percent of those stops targeted black and Hispanic individuals, although they constitute only half the city’s population. Overall, NYPD officers stopped and frisked more young black men in New York than actually live there. Similar patterns of discrimination can be found nationwide, especially on drug-related charges. Black and white Americans use marijuana at an almost-equal rate, but blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession nationally. In Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, that arrest disparity jumps to a factor of five.

The collective impact of these policies is as rarely discussed as it is far-reaching. Mass incarceration touches almost every corner of modern American society. Any meaningful discourse on racism, poverty, immigration, the drug wars, gun violence, the mental-health crisis, or income inequality is incomplete without addressing the societal ramifications of imprisoning Americans by the millions for long stretches of time with little hope for rehabilitation.

None of this is new information for the activists and scholars who’ve worked on prison and criminal-justice reform for years. But for the general public, a crucial first step is to denormalize the current system. This is not the way it has always been—and this is not the way it has to be.

Reprint: Leader of the Unfree World -By Matt Ford | The Atlantic

Related: The Caging of America -By Adam Gopnik | The Atlantic 

Charting the Shocking Rise of Racial Disparity in Our Criminal Justice System -By Christopher Ingraham | Washington Post

 

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The Case for Reparations | Ta-Nehisi Coates

The AtlanticDespite 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of “separate but equal” and 35 years of racist housing policies, signs of overt racism still are all around us – be it a New Hampshire police commissioner’s use of an ethnic slur to describe President Obama or a NBA team owner’s disturbing remarks about black athletes and fans. By now, we all know the drill, the media calls these people out for their ugly words and we play our parts, shaking our heads in sad disbelief — then return to our daily lives.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, thinks it’s time for a bold step to change the way we talk and think about race in America. His explosive new cover story, provocatively titled “The Case for Reparations,” attempts to rekindle a national discussion on reparations for American slavery and institutional racism. Coates explores how the original sin of slavery, state-sanctioned violence against blacks, Jim Crow segregation, and federally backed housing policy systematically robbed African Americans of their possessions and prevented them from accruing inter-generational wealth.

Coates points to a century of racist and exploitative housing policies that made it extremely hard for African-Americans to own homes and forced them to live in poorer neighborhoods with unequal access to a good education, resulting in a major wealth (and health) gap between black and white. In fact, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households, according to a Pew Research Center study.

“It puts a lie to the myth that African Americans who act right, who are respectable, are somehow therefore immune to the plunder that is symptomatic of white supremacy in this country,” Coates says. “It does not matter. There’s no bettering yourself that will get you out of this.”

“There are plenty of African-Americans in this country — and I would say this goes right up to the White House — who are not by any means poor, but are very much afflicted by white supremacy,” Coates says. By white supremacy Coates says he refers to an age-old system in America which holds that whites “should always be ensured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by black people.”

Coates makes the case that the intolerable economic reality experienced by many middle-to-lower class African-Americans stems, not from their work ethic or lack thereof, but from their unique and unimaginably painful past. Inequality, poverty, racism and discrimination didn’t just cease after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Life for many blacks, especially those living in the deep South, changed little if at all. No longer openly referred to as “slaves”, blacks assumed the title of “sharecropper” -semantics being the primary difference between the two.

No one living now is responsible for the sins or crimes of their ancestors. But white America cannot pretend they are not the intended and actual beneficiaries of the ongoing institutional racism first introduced, then supported, by their ancestors. As Coates explained to Bill Moyer in the video above: “I am not asking you as a white person to see yourself as an enslaver. I’m asking you as an American to see all of the freedoms that you enjoy and see how they are rooted in things that the country you belong to condoned or actively participated in the past.”

“Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole,” Coates said. 

I concur.

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates |The Atlantic


Additional Sources: Moyers & Company – Facing the Truth: The Case for Reparations (05/21)

Democracy Now! The Case for Reparations: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Reckoning With U.S. Slavery & Institutional Racism (05/29)

 

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529 Egyptians Sentenced to Death in Killing One Police Officer -David D. Kirkpatrick | NYT

529-Mursi

A relative of a supporter of Egyptian ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, cries outside the courthouse on March 24, 2014 in the central Egyptian city of Minya, after the court ordered the execution of 529 Morsi supporters after only two hearings. Photo: AFP Photo/STR

MINYA, Egypt — A crowd gathered outside a courthouse in the town of Matay erupted in wailing and rage last Monday when a judge sentenced 529 defendants to death in just the second session of their trial, convicting them of murdering a police officer in anger at the ouster of the Islamist president. Here in the provincial capital just a few miles away, schools shut down early, and many stayed indoors fearing a riot, residents said.

But the crowds went home, and soon the streets were quiet.

After nine months of escalating repression that culminated in the extraordinary verdict, the military-led government that removed President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have finally cowed his supporters into near-silence here in Minya, perhaps their greatest stronghold. The city was the heart of a fierce Islamist insurgency just two decades ago, and threatened to rise up again, against the new government.

“They want to scare us so we don’t go out into the streets against them, to show us that could be the justification for another death sentence,” said Mohamed Hafez, whose brother was among those sentenced to death. So rather than give them the pretext, he said, the families consoled themselves that mass sentence was in some ways “a good thing,” because it showed that the trial itself was “a farce” and “illegitimate.”

Excerpt, read Hundreds of Egyptians Sentenced to Death in Killing of a Police Officer -David D. Kirkpatrick | NYT

Related: In Egypt, One Step Up and 529 Steps Back -By Robert Mackey | NYT


UPDATE 04/28: The same Egyptian court that sentenced 529 men to death earlier this month has condemned 683 more defendants to the gallows, making 1,100 Egyptians who have been convicted in the death of a single policeman. Meanwhile, no security official has been charged for the more than 1,000 civilians killed in July. Read Egypt’s Court Mock Justice With More Death Sentences -By Karl Vick | TIME

 

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After Death Row in Texas, I’m Fighting to End the Death Penalty | Kerry Max Cook

Kerry Max Cook © marco delogu

Kerry Max Cook © marco delogu

My name is Kerry Max Cook, but for two decades, I was known as “Cook, Execution number 600.” Innocent of the murder and rape I was accused of in 1977, my home became a tiny death row cell in Texas, the state that kills more people than anywhere else in the U.S. by far — including 141 of my fellow inmates before my release in 1999. By then, my only brother had been murdered and my Dad had died of cancer. My Mom died soon after. I was stabbed, raped and routinely abused on death row. My ordeal spanned two generations of the Smith County District Attorney’s office, two wrongful convictions, two reversals of conviction, a walk to the execution chamber, and three capital murder trials. My legal team and I have been unable to find a worse case of prosecutorial misconduct in Texan history.

I avoided a fourth trial only by pleading no contest, while making no admission of guilt. I have never been officially exonerated. Author John Grisham said, “If it were fiction, no one would believe it …”

I am, in fact, innocent. Another man’s DNA was found on the victim’s clothing two months after my release. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals accused Smith County prosecutors of “willful misconduct” in my case. Nonetheless that office remains determined to stop me clearing my name. My lawyers are working to file an application for writ of habeas corpus in coming months, hopefully prompting the appeals court in Austin to officially exonerate me and end my 36-year-old nightmare.

It all began in 1977. I was 20 and working as a bartender when a waitress said the manager wanted to see me. I stepped into a pitch-black room that was usually lit by fluorescent lighting and fumbled for the switch. Suddenly, hands reached out to grab both sides of me. The silver Smith & Wesson handcuffs crashed down on my wrist and I heard the detective’s words, “Kerry Max Cook, you’re under arrest for the capital murder of Linda Edwards” — a name I didn’t even recognize.

At the police station, they used my head as a toilet plunger. I knew the policeman was lying as he rammed my head repeatedly down the bowl filled with dark urine, screamed at me to confess and told me they had found my DNA on the body. I wept for my mother and father, for anyone, to help.

Even though I still bear the mental and physical scars and ongoing indignities of my wrongful conviction and imprisonment, I consider myself lucky. I have a wife and son. I have powerful allies — including Amnesty International, which found me in a dark cell and helped raise awareness of my wrongful conviction in 1991. It literally saved my life. I was so proud to be introduced by Susan Sarandon at Amnesty’s Bringing Human Rights Home concert in Brooklyn February 5 and address the audience as my 13-year-old Kerry Justice Cook looked on. I was proud to honor a powerful, global movement of activists who carry Amnesty’s torch for human rights — including my right to life. That is why I support Amnesty’s abolition work and the efforts by courageous activists on the ground, most urgently in New Hampshire, where a repeal vote in the state House is anticipated early next month.

The death penalty should be abolished across the United States, and everywhere. We do not need any more mistakes. We know that 143 people have served time on US death rows for crimes they were wrongfully convicted of. And imagine this. On appeal, the only question becomes whether the defendant received a fair and impartial trial. So if the evidence is made up, like in my case, you die.

The price of this system is a life. Of course the odds are stacked in your favor if you have access to financial resources, but you won’t be surprised to hear that you don’t meet too many people like that on death row.

One of death row’s other dirty little secrets is that it is a repository for every conceivable mental illness. Its population consists largely of untreated, traumatized children who grew up into broken adults. There are exceptions, of course, but I do not believe that even the guilty on death row are irredeemable. As Rosalind says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “Time is the old justice that examines all such offenders.” If my case proves anything, it is that only time can tell if someone is guilty.

No prosecutor should have the power to end another human life. No other living soul should endure what I did. So I am praying now for victory, by Amnesty International USA and all those who are pushing to end this barbaric practice, in New Hampshire, and everywhere. Then, my nightmare will be over.

★ Kerry’s Fight for Justice
★ Kerry on Self-Empowerment 

 

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Video

Bryan Stevenson: We Need To Talk About An Injustice

In an engaging and personal talk — with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks — human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America’s unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness.

“I was giving some lectures in Germany about the death penalty. It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, ‘Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.’ He said, ‘We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.’ And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, ‘There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.’ And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable. And yet, in this country, in the states of the Old South, we execute people — where you’re 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, 22 times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white — in the very states where there are buried in the ground the bodies of people who were lynched. And yet, there is this disconnect.” –Bryan A. Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson’s 20 minute TEDx speech is, without a doubt, one of the most profound, urgent and inspiring talks ever!

Bryan Stevenson: We Need To Talk About An Injustice | TEDx

Annotated Transcript


Bryan A. Stevenson is a Professor of Clinical Law at New York University and a public-interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults. One recent victory: A ban on life imprisonment without parole sentences imposed on children convicted of most crimes in the United States.

 

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