By Andrew Cohen
While the COVID-19 pandemic presents myriad challenges for Alexa Homewood and Ayyan Zubair in their role as Berkeley Law 3L class presidents, the crowning moment of their time at law school figures to be memorable and inspiring.
Acclaimed author, iconic criminal justice reform advocate, and renowned professor Bryan Stevenson has accepted an invitation to speak at commencement May 21. He is widely known for his best-selling 2015 book Just Mercy, which chronicles his career as a legal advocate for wrongly condemned and harshly sentenced individuals.
“Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his career to fighting racial and economic injustice and continues to make strides towards improving America’s justice system,” Homewood says. “He’s an inspiring embodiment of Berkeley Law’s public mission towards accessibility, affordability, and advocacy.”
Stevenson has represented capital defendants and death row prisoners in the deep south for 36 years. Since 1989, he has been founding executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that serves marginalized groups unjustly impacted by America’s criminal legal system and pursues policy reform to help them.
The organization litigates on behalf of prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly condemned or charged, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. Stevenson and his team have won favorable outcomes for more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.
“Bryan Stevenson’s commitment to curing the ills of our legal system makes him an ideal choice to speak at our commencement,” Zubair says. “This year in particular, our nation has come face-to-face with how laws are enforced, and whom the law protects.”
Homewood and Zubair met with Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Dean of Students Annik Hirshen to discuss potential commencement speakers. From that conversation, they selected three candidates to present to their classmates in a survey, with the option to write in another. After the survey closed, Homewood and Zubair relayed the results to Chemerinsky, who sent Stevenson an invitation on behalf of the class.
“Commencement is an important celebration of a significant achievement for the class of 2021, which is why it was essential to develop a process that would adequately reflect the voices of this year’s graduating students,” Homewood says. “We were thrilled to see over 200 graduating students fill out the survey because, as 3L class presidents, it is our main priority to give our classmates a platform for their voices to be heard.”
A Harvard Law graduate with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (he won awards in both programs), Stevenson joined the clinical faculty at New York University School of Law in 1998. He has published widely disseminated manuals on capital litigation and written extensively on criminal justice, capital punishment, and civil rights issues.
His work has been recognized with numerous honors, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the American Civil Liberties Union National Medal of Liberty, and the American College of Trial Lawyers’ Award for Courageous Advocacy. Stevenson has also received more than 40 honorary doctoral degrees.
Just Mercy, which was adapted into a 2019 movie starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, highlights his work with Walter McMillian, a Black man wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama in 1988. The book examines America’s criminal justice and prison systems, providing historical context as well as Stevenson’s own reflections about valuing empathy over punishment.
“Commencement is such an important part of the lives of our graduates and their families, and I’m delighted that Bryan Stevenson has accepted the invitation to be our speaker,” Chemerinsky says. “He is one of the best speakers I have ever heard.”
Uncertain about how commencement will be celebrated, Chemerinsky formed a committee to issue recommendations on how to best make the event meaningful in light of constraints imposed by the pandemic. The committee includes Homewood, Zubair, SABL representatives from the J.D., LL.M., J.S.P., and J.S.D. programs, and Berkeley Law staff members.
Regardless of how this year’s commencement ceremony unfolds, Zubair anticipates a stirring sendoff from Stevenson.
“It is my hope that hearing his journey will inspire myself and my fellow graduates towards a career of serving the public interest and creating a more perfect union,” Zubair says.