Attorney Bryan Stevenson of Montgomery, Ala., and the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) of Budapest, Hungary, shared the 2009 Gruber Prize for Justice for “their tireless advocacy of human rights” for individuals belonging to oppressed groups with little or no access to the justice system.
The international prize of $500,000 was awarded by The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation in a ceremony Sept. 24 at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law. Foundation president Patricia Gruber presented the awards.
Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), represents indigent defendants, death row inmates and juveniles who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. With his staff, he has been largely responsible for reversals or reduced sentences in more than 75 death penalty cases.
The ERRC combats anti-Romani racism and human rights abuse of Roma peoples in Europe. It has set in motion more than 500 court cases in 15 countries to fight injustice against Romani individuals, securing more than two million euros in compensation for them.
“Why do I do what I do?” said Stevenson during a panel discussion at the awards program. “Because problems still exist.” He cited the increase in America’s jail population as a significant indicator. “There were 200,000 people in jail in 1972, and now there are 2.3 million. We have many people who can’t get access to the legal system.” He added, “You judge a society by how it treats the poor.”
Robert Kushen, ERRC managing director, said the Romani people of central Europe have a lack of faith in the legal system. He said the fact that many nations with substantial Romani populations had joined the European Union had “very limited impact” on Romani access to justice. Isabela Mihalache, ERRC deputy director, said Romani people fear the police and often don’t report crimes against themselves.
Giuseppe Bisconti of Rome, Italy, former president of the International Law Association, read the award citation and praised the recipients “for defending the human dignity of all of us.” Bisconti was a member of the Gruber Prize selection board.
In a separate program, Stevenson spoke to Samford freshmen students in its core curriculum classes. “It is always important to have convictions,” he said. “Ideas are not enough, you must have conviction in your heart. You have to be willing to say things when it is not convenient.”
He noted that the United States was a wealthy nation that tolerated poverty. Citing Alabama’s Black Belt region, he said, “Poverty creates despair, and you give up quickly. If we don’t challenge poverty, we condemn a lot of people.”Stevenson reminded the freshmen, “You have the capacity to say something about issues that matter.” He urged them to have hope that problems could be solved. “You must have hope.”