Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

The Butterfly Wings of Conscience

In these troubled, scary times, we look for ways to bring the light. We choose alternatives to plastic and fossil fuels or grass that gulps precious water. We wear masks and sit for vaccinations—as many times as we must. Little acts are like the flapping of butterfly wings—they perform together to create a wind that supports the goodness in us all. Speaking for myself, I’m weary of hearing about ignorance and callousness. I know so many people who are better than that. And then I heard about Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man who has been in prison for over 40 years even after the prosecutors and the lone witness against him declare flatly that he should be free. The witness recanted. The people who could release him, won’t. Their reasoning echoes the flimsy logic of dialogue from a film my husband and I recently viewed. How could that be?

When Harvard trained attorney Bryan Stevenson wrote his nonfiction book JUST MERCY: A STORY OF JUSTICE AND REDEMPTION, he wanted to illustrate the problem common to prisoners such as Kevin Strickland, the sources, and the hard-won legal solutions. One true story involved Walter McMillan, an Alabama man who was condemned to death for murdering a young white woman, although he was with numerous family members at a fish fry far away from the event. That story became the basis of the film JUST MERCY with Jamie Foxx portraying McMillan.

Why was McMillan condemned? The officials needed someone to blame for a horrific murder that had unsettled local residents. A black man—almost any black man—made a satisfying conclusion to the case they hadn’t solved. And then, once the happy resolution was presented, they didn’t want to look bad by admitting the sheriff had threatened and emotionally intimidated a white convict to testify as an eye witness against McMillan. The man the sheriff chose was emotionally unstable, having nearly burned to death as a child. The sheriff told him he would face the electric chair if he didn’t testify and then placed him in a cell beside the electrocution chamber where he could smell burning flesh. The sheriff was re-elected after the truth was revealed and the white witness courageously recanted. The first local judge approached in a request for re-trial heavy with evidence denied the request with the flimsy logic we hear today in Strickland’s case.

In an interview with Antonia Blyth regarding the film, Jamie Foxx talked about death row and how the cruelest thing anyone can do to a death row inmate is to give him hope. Not everyone on death row is innocent. However, the sad progression of lies that victimized Walter McMillan and Kevin Strickland is not unusual for men like them or even young black boys. The film illustrates how Bryan Stevenson received a reality check when he arrived in the south where blind prejudice doesn’t hide. He, too, was the victim of attempted intimidation because of his skin in spite of his credentials.

Jamie Foxx commented on how he was pleased to see that the film also illustrated “the way the white characters had contrition….That allows everyone in.” When Stevenson secured national attention for his client, the situation gradually changed. Not everyone is comfortable being blatantly unjust or cruel, regardless of how they feel about race, gender, ethnicity, or immigration status. The attention of people who act on their integrity is important—hence movements such as BLACK LIVES MATTER. Each of us, gathered together into a whole based on conscience, matters. We make life better. No wonder many want to curtail our vote, but they can’t silence our voices.

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