In Australia there are few that know of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative or EJI.
Mr Stevenson is an outstanding African American civil rights attorney, activist and head of the formidable EJI based in the southern state of Alabama. Likened to a Nelson Mandela of our times, Stevenson and the EJI work tirelessly to overcome racial inequality and injustice in the American criminal justice system.
Released in Australia this week, Just Mercy is based on his experience as a young Harvard law graduate who in 1987 finds himself in Alabama representing an African American man, Walter 'Johnny D’ McMillian, facing the death penalty for the murder of a white woman. Mr McMillian had been sentenced to death by a racist legal system that failed to allow evidence of his innocence but rather fabricated evidence against him.
The prosecution ruthlessly maintained the case against him as a Black man who had offended whites by having an affair with a white woman.
I had already read the book Just Mercy about Stevenson’s life and what was being done to African American people by the legal system. The injustices documented, including children on death row and children sentenced to life imprisonment, shocked me deeply.
I had studied law many years ago in the hope of fighting injustice and as a law student protested at the Tent embassy in Canberra over the incarceration of Aboriginal youth in WA impacted by the “Three Strikes Law”.
Later I litigated against a Federal Senator who had viciously attacked Aboriginal culture and this led to the first federal Aboriginal case of Racial Vilification under the new section 18 C law.
In 2019 after reading Just Mercy I decided to see Alabama myself and visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice established in Montgomery. I was made welcome to an EJI ceremony held to recognise the descendants of the victims of lynching, innocent African American men and even children such as Emmett Till.
The descendants of those cruelly murdered were in the audience and they stood as their loved ones were remembered. Stevenson’s powerful address and work of the EJI attorneys left an indelible impression.
Across the world oppressed peoples share a bond and our fight for justice is lifelong; we must never forget what has been done to our people and what is still being done to this day.
In closing the ceremony, African American women elders lifted us in spirit with the civil rights anthem as Stevenson called on us to join them in singing ‘We shall overcome’. Somehow, I even knew some of the words. Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome some day.
Defending Jody Gore
It was after this visit that my niece told me about Jody Gore, who was also her aunty and an Aboriginal woman from the Gidja people of the East Kimberley.
Jody had been wrongfully convicted of murder and was serving a 12 years sentence in the Perth high security women’s prison, Bandyup.
I was told Jody had experienced a life time of serious violence by her former partner but yet her claim of self-defence was rejected by the court. When I visited her at Bandyup she showed me the scars over her body and I left the prison knowing there was a very real injustice to her.
The court transcript made clear that the Supreme Court and the presiding judge did not take into account the social, economic and cultural circumstances of this Aboriginal woman.
The case against Jody was clearly a racist one. There was a racial undertone and stereotyping of her and this stereotype was so powerful it ensured her dignity and truth as an Aboriginal woman would not be recognised by the law.
The judge showed no mercy to Jody sentencing her to murder and a term of imprisonment that Jody would not be able to survive.
Last year I went about finding allies and setting up a legal defence team with Stella Tarrant, Carol Bahemia, George Giudice, non-Aboriginal people with expertise in the criminal law. Annabel Hennessey from The West Australian newspaper unequivocally supported Jody’s case as she knew it deserved the public’s attention.
We discovered evidence that had not been put forward at Jody’s hasty 2016 trial and supported her claim to self defence. It included evidence from a psychiatrist that Jody’s life had also been in danger that night and that she had suffered from PTSD from years of abuse.
The local women’s refuge had kept Jody’s records showing that she sought help after the relationship with her ex-partner had ended but the police told her they could not help as it was a ‘mental health’ issue.
This evidence flew in the face of the Judge’s finding that the relationship had ended when it did, that Jody had no need for fear and had overreacted. It also showed the police were no help and the prosecution claim that Jody over-reacted was wrong.
As a result of the public exposure of Jody’s case and our efforts, the Attorney General John Quigley announced he would introduce new laws to ensure that victim’s evidence about the violence against them can properly be heard in courts.
Most importantly, Jody was released by the Governor General upon petition from the AG in September last year under the Mercy prerogative.
This was unprecedented, no one before had been released in this way.
Jody had been wrongly incarcerated for more than three years and a serious miscarriage of justice had been done to her. She walked free from Broome prison on 25 September 2019 reunited with her children and family.
Aboriginal people in Australia have, and continue to experience mass incarceration similar that of African American people as shown in Just Mercy. This is especially so for Aboriginal women in Western Australia where the rate of incarceration is considered to be the highest of any group in the world.
We can learn from EJI’s work as they are strategically making this a matter of national and international attention. Stevenson and EJI have also established the Legacy Museum showing the history of slavery and legalised discrimination known as Jim Crow, and the way in which racialized injustice has remained a foremost character of the American legal system.
The National Memorial for Justice and Peace acknowledges African Americans who were the victims of lynching and murder, horrific crimes that were permitted by the states who profited from slavery in a similar way in which they profit today from the labour today of incarcerated African American men, women and children. It is a sacred place where the past is remembered, it cannot afford to be forgotten.
In Australia there are no doubt many instances of wrongful incarceration and Just Mercy is a story for both nations.
Racism remains endemic and deeply entrenched in our criminal justice system, not unlike the U.S. We cannot feel defeated though.
Just Mercy stirs us to action and Stevenson reminds us that;
‘Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope allows us to push forward.
To stand up when they tell us to sit down. To speak up when they tell us to be quiet.’
As Aboriginal people we oppose state violence and remember the many lives so violently taken, Ms Dhu, Tanya Day, Cherdeena Wynne, Kumanjayi Walker, Joyce Clarke, David Dunjay, and all our fallen brothers and sisters. We demand Justice in their names and dignity for all Aboriginal people experiencing violence and abuse at the hands of the Australian state.
Just Mercy is a call to action, one that Australian's also cannot afford to miss.
NITV presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives on 26 January. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe
Dr Hannah McGlade is the Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, Western Australia. She is the editor of 'Treaty, Let's Get it Right!' and author of "Our Greatest Challenge, Aboriginal Children and Human Rights" which received the 2013 Stanner Award. Since graduating from Law school in the 1990's she has initiated and supported many cases promoting Aboriginal rights including McGlade v Lightfoot. In 2016 she was appointed the Senior Indigenous Fellow at the United Nations OHCHR and in 2020 begins her appointment with the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples, representing the Pacific.