Talking about justice with Bryan Stevenson

Richard Branson speaking to Bryan Stevenson
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Published on 4 March 2021

Brilliant to chat to Bryan Stevenson about his book Just Mercy with my Literati book club.

Bryan is one of the most acclaimed civil rights attorneys and social justice activists in the world today. I’ve been fortunate to meet him on several occasions, and he is one of the most humble and inspiring people I’ve ever met.

As founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, Bryan and his brilliant team have won reversals, relief, or release for over 135 wrongly condemned men and women on death row. He has argued and won multiple cases before the US Supreme Court, won landmark rulings, and was appointed to President Obama’s task force on 21st Century Policing.

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I’ve never made a secret of my opposition to capital punishment. We talked about how the death penalty is a barbaric and inhumane form of punishment. One of the most frustrating aspects of the death penalty is the well-documented risk of executing innocent people. In the United States for every nine people executed, one innocent person has been exonerated.

Bryan put it perfectly when he said: “There isn’t a system in the world that can provide perfect punishment in the way the death penalty requires.”

I nominated Bryan’s book Just Mercy for my Literati book club, as it is a story of hope, but also a damning indictment of a system marred by error and unimaginable cruelty. The book has deeply touched many of our Literati readers - by either reinforcing or completely shifting their views of criminal justice.

As Bryan said in our chat: “I don’t want to punish America, I want to genuinely liberate us.”

It was really moving to hear Bryan recount how his own family have experienced many cases of injustice. He talked about how his great grandparents were slaves, and he went to a segregated primary school in Delaware. He said: “The assumption of guilt assigned to Black children at birth weighed on me.” These events inspired him to become a lawyer and triggered his desire to fight for human rights and criminal justice reform.

He has had a remarkable career so far and he said how the most valuable lesson he has learnt along the way is that, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”. I couldn’t agree more.

We finished our discussion by lightening the mood a little as I asked him how he felt to be portrayed by Michael B. Jordan – the world’s reigning Sexiest Man Alive - in his film Just Mercy. Bryan laughed and said he had tried to stay away from the Doritos a little more than usual.

Head over to Literati’s YouTube channel to watch the full interview and to its website to join our book club and take part in some fascinating discussions.