In 1988, Walter McMillian, a Black man, was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for murdering an 18-year-old white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. His case lacked evidence but he was still placed on Death Row before he was even found guilty. Walter McMillian's true story, about how our criminal justice system failed him, and lawyer and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson’s work to free him are the subject of legal drama Just Mercy, in select theaters now.
Just Mercy, starring Jamie Foxx as Walter (and also sometimes called Johnnie D by his friends and family), is based off the memoir written by Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan. The novel was published a year after McMillian died in 2013. He was 71.
McMillian spent six years on death row, as mentioned on Stevenson’s EJI website, before his conviction was overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the prosecutors finally admitted the case had been “mishandled.”
Those years on death row weighed heavily on McMillian, who continued to fight for the lives of death row inmates after he was exonerated. On April 1, 1993, McMillian spoke to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about the dangers of the death penalty. Here's what he said:
“There are many things that concern me as I sit here today. I am excited and happier than I can describe to be free. At times, I feel like flying. However, I am also deeply troubled by the way the criminal system treated me and the difficulty I had in proving my innocence. I am also worried about others. I believe there are other people under sentence of death who like me are not guilty.”
In his testimony, McMillian addressed an issue that is voiced in Just Mercy, both the novel and film: Our criminal justice system favors the wealthy while failing the poor who are not given proper legal representation.
“If federal courts do not permit Death Row prisoners to prove their innocence, even after many years on Death Row, and prevent wrongful executions, the hope of many innocent people on Death Row will be crushed,” McMillian said. He ended his testimony with this haunting sentiment: “Justice if forever shattered when we kill an innocent man.”
Despite the McMillian’s conviction being overturned and the suspected killer never being imprisoned, as the film’s credits mention, Sheriff Tom Tate was never removed from office and retired just last year. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, McMillian filed a civil lawsuit against state and local officials. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against McMillian and he settled with other officials, excluding the sheriff, for an undisclosed amount.
Aside from this court case and McMillian’s testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, he seemed to have retreated from the public eye. There are just a few images, including his McMillian's 60 Minutes interview (above) which helped bring national attention to his case.
Unfortunately, McMillian also battled dementia before his death. In a 2014 NPR interview, Stevenson mentions how McMillian’s imprisonment affected the rest of his life. “I saw that create this early-onset dementia [in McMillian] that many of the doctors believed was trauma-induced, was a function of his experience of being nearly killed — and he witnessed eight executions when he was on death row…,” Stevenson said, addressing the suffering trauma the wrongly convicted are left with. “[McMillian] is in some ways a microcosm of that reality. He's representative of what we've done to thousands of people.”
In Refinery29’s interview with director Destin Daniel Cretton, who also co-wrote the screenplay, he said filmmakers relied heavily on Stevenson to accurately portray McMillian’s experience with the Alabama police and his time on death row. The creators wanted to respect the “sensitivity between the lawyer and client relationship,” so Stevenson was the person who contacted McMillian’s family. “He was communicating to them throughout the process rather than us. He was very protective of them, rightfully so.”
Stevenson, who spent time with the family as the film shows, used his personal experiences to help the movie convey the love and support McMillian’s family provided. While other scenes, like the disturbing manner McMillian was arrested by Sheriff Tate, which is mentioned in McMillian’s testimony to U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, was altered.
“To be honest we toned it way down from what the reality of what was documented for that arrest was,” Cretton admitted. “If we put all the language that was used it would instantly become a rated R movie.”
Cretton said Stevenson waited to show the film to McMillian’s family even though it had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “It was actually very moving when he showed the movie to them in Montgomery just a month ago or so,” Cretton said. “It was a very emotional, moving night and they responded really well to it. So that was very relieving.”