Just Mercy

Free Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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Authors: Bryan Stevenson
ride away in Atmore, Alabama. Before the trip, the sheriff again threatened Walter with racial slurs and terrifying plans. It’s unclear how Tate was able to persuade Holman’s warden to house two pretrial detainees on death row, although Tate knew people at the prison from his days as a probation officer. The transfer of Myers and McMillian from the county jail to death row took place on August 1, 1987, less than a month before the scheduled execution of Wayne Ritter.
    When Walter McMillian arrived on Alabama’s death row—just ten years after the modern death penalty was reinstituted—an entire community of condemned men awaited him. Most of the hundred or so death row prisoners who had been sentenced to execution in Alabama since capital punishment was restored in 1975 were black, although to Walter’s surprise nearly 40 percent of them were white. Everyone was poor, and everyone asked him why he was there.
    Condemned prisoners on Alabama’s death row unit are housed in windowless concrete buildings that are notoriously hot and uncomfortable. Each death row inmate was placed in a five-by-eight-foot cell with a metal door, a commode, and a steel bunk. The temperatures in August consistently reached over 100 degrees for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Incarcerated men would trap rats, poisonous spiders, and snakes they found inside the prison to pass the time and to keep safe. Isolated and remote, most prisoners got few visits and even fewer privileges.
    Existence at Holman centered on Alabama’s electric chair. The large wooden chair was built in the 1930s, and inmates had painted it yellow before attaching its leather straps and electrodes. They called it “Yellow Mama.” The executions at Holman resumed just a few years before Walter arrived. John Evans and Arthur Jones had recently been electrocuted in Holman’s execution chamber. Russ Canan, an attorney with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta, had volunteered to represent Evans. Evans filmed what became an after-school special for kids where he shared the story of his life with schoolchildren and urged them to avoid the mistakes he had made.
    After courts refused to block the Evans execution following multiple appeals, Canan went to the prison to witness the execution at Evans’s request. It was worse than Russ could have ever imagined. He later filed a much-reviewed affidavit describing the entire horrific process:
    At 8:30 P.M. the first jolt of 1,900 volts of electricity passed through Mr. Evans’s body. It lasted thirty seconds. Sparks and flames erupted from the electrode tied to Mr. Evans’s left leg. His body slammed against the straps holding him in the electric chair and his fist clenched permanently. The electrode apparently burst from the strap holding it in place. A large puff of greyish smoke and sparks poured out from under the hood that covered Mr. Evans’s face. An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead.
    The electrode on the left leg was refastened. At 8:30 P.M. [
sic
] Mr. Evans was administered a second thirty-second jolt of electricity. The stench of burning flesh was nauseating. More smoke emanated from his leg and head. Again, the doctors examined Mr. Evans. The doctors reported that his heart was still beating, and that he was still alive.
    At that time, I asked the prison commissioner, who was communicatingon an open telephone line to Governor George Wallace to grant clemency on the grounds that Mr. Evans was being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The request for clemency was denied.
    At 8:40 P.M. , a third charge of electricity, thirty seconds in duration, was passed through Mr. Evans’s body. At 8:44, the doctors pronounced him dead. The execution of John Evans took fourteen minutes.
    Walter McMillian knew nothing about any of this before he arrived at Holman. But with another scheduled

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