• Donald V. Watkins

Just Mercy: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Updated: Jan 15

By: Claire Larson

© Copyrighted and Published on January 12, 2020


On Friday, the movie adaptation of the book, Just Mercy, was released nationwide. It chronicles the prosecution, wrongful conviction and imprisonment on death row of Walter McMillian for a murder he did not commit. Heroic measures had to be taken by attorney, Bryan Stevenson, to secure his eventual release. It is a true-to-life commentary on the voids in human decency of numerous individuals in the Deep South who still seem to be fighting the Civil War. Something other than “justice” appears to be going on when the main witnesses recant, numerous people are able to provide an alibi for the accused, and it is proven there is no way possible some of the witnesses would have been able to “witness” anything at all, yet a conviction is obtained and then sustained for years through multiple appeals.


Even after the State seems to admit that McMillian didn’t commit the murder, they still attempted to hold him on death row until they had “completed their investigation into the real perpetrator”. Stevenson succeeded in getting Walter released. However, the damage to his marriage was permanent as was the damage to his health and mental well-being. He died at the age of 71 with severe dementia. His claim for damages went all the way to the Supreme Court who ruled against him.


One particularly moving passage in the book discussed a group of Walter’s black friends and relatives breaking into applause just because Stevenson had come to visit with them in the home of one of the group in attendance. It really brought home how the black population in the South has come to expect so little that it was a big deal to this group that someone had just shown up. Many in this group were acutely aware of the monumental nature of the railroad job perpetrated on McMillian as some of them were also with him at a neighborhood gathering taking place at the same time the murder was going on. McMillian’s sister said, “Just about everybody in here was standing next to him, talking to him, laughing with him, eating with him. Then the police come along months later, say he killed somebody miles away at the same time we were standing next to him. Then they take him away when you know it’s a lie.” Not only was Walter harmed, but what does it do to the psyche of a community when they know a man can be completely innocent, the evidence all points to him being innocent and the judicial system can convict him and steal six years of his life?


It should not be lost on anyone that this travesty occurred in Monroeville, Alabama, hometown of To Kill A Mockingbird author, Harper Lee. And the real reason McMillian was arrested should not be lost on anyone either. The arresting officer, Thomas Tate, made the following comment when arresting him: “We’re going to keep all you n****** from running around with white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you like we done that n***** in Mobile.” Tate continued in his position and was reelected after McMillian was freed. He was also responsible for pocketing more than $110,000 that was intended for inmate’s food. That is the state of Alabama today where he served as Sheriff of Monroe County, Alabama up until last year. Perhaps Tate needs to become the subject of a nationwide call for an investigation into just what it is that happened during his tenure as well as what happened in Mobile to Michael Donald.


Stevenson boldly declared to the judge after Walter was freed, “Your Honor, I just want to say this before we adjourn. It was far too easy to convict this wrongly accused man for murder and send him to death row for something he didn’t do and much too hard to win his freedom after proving his innocence. We have serious problems and important work that must be done in this state.” It is a very succinct summation of what this country is still fighting,


It’s far too easy in Alabama for corrupt government officials to carry out a fraudulent investigation with the judicial community turning a blind eye to justice. The question is, what are we going to do about it? This Harvard educated lawyer, instead of taking the expected path littered with exorbitant billings for inconsequential cases and corporate clients, led with his morals and ethics, representing and fighting for people who had nothing other than their state-issued prison uniform and the twisted life fate handed to them. He has won relief for over 125 inmates on death row including Anthony Ray Hinton. Ask yourself what you can do about the issues going on in Alabama then get out there and do something. Otherwise you’ve just become a part of a sad reflection on what has come to be known as “Southern Justice”. In the words of Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” At the very least, buy the book, see the movie or make a donation to Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative.

PHOTO: Monroe County, Alabama Sheriff Tom Tate

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© 2020 by Donald V. Watkins, P.C.