After Supreme Court victory, Stephen Bright won’t rest his defense of the poor and the powerless

Over 34 years with the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Atlanta-based legal nonprofit’s longtime leader has argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court—and never lost.
Stephen Bright

Johnathon Kelso

In May 1987 Timothy Tyrone Foster, a mentally ill and intellectually disabled black 18-year-old, was found guilty of strangling a 79-year-old retired white schoolteacher in her Rome, Georgia, home. Out of 51 qualified jurors, only four were black, and the local prosecutor used a legal maneuver that allowed him to reject each of them without explanation. Foster’s lawyers cried racial discrimination but ultimately couldn’t convince the judge of prosecutorial misconduct.

Foster, who was sentenced to die, unsuccessfully sought a new trial for nearly two decades. In 2006 his case was sent to the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed a routine request for additional documents. The nonprofit’s leader, Stephen Bright, found in the prosecutor’s notes that each black juror’s name had been highlighted and circled with a B written next to it. It was an “arsenal of smoking guns” unlike anything the veteran attorney had seen before.

“I’m sure [the prosecutor] meant to shred the notes,” says Bright, now a boyish 68. “But no one got around to doing that, so they were still there.”

In November 2015 Bright finally was able to present the notes to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 23 the court ruled in a 7-1 decision that Foster’s constitutional rights had been violated, clearing the way for a new trial. Bright has now won three capital cases before the nation’s highest court, maintaining a perfect record in the moments when the stakes are highest for his clients.

In his 34 years of leading the group, Bright has expanded the SCHR’s mission beyond death penalty cases to target injustices faced by those behind bars—including poor jail conditions and access to medical care—and to rein in predatory probation companies. As a pioneering indigent defense advocate, Bright has worked on more than 100 death penalty cases and influenced some of the field’s top minds.

“Steve reminds us of what justice really demands,” says Jonathan Rapping, cofounder of Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta nonprofit that has trained hundreds of public defenders. “We work with a system that pressures us to forget our own values. Steve believes so deeply in what is right that he won’t hesitate to stand up anywhere and say it.”

Growing up on his family’s cattle farm in Kentucky, Bright wrote for the local paper and was a rabble-rousing student body president at the University of Kentucky. After earning his law degree from the school, he began his career as a public defender in eastern Kentucky, before moving to Washington, D.C. In 1979 the Georgia ACLU asked Bright to petition the Supreme Court for a new trial for a schizophrenic man facing execution for a young boy’s murder, on the grounds that his lawyer had failed to adequately challenge his competency to stand trial.

“I was a little reluctant,” Bright says, “but it became clear that they desperately needed any lawyer they could get.”

After volunteering on capital cases for three years, Bright moved to Atlanta to become director of the SCHR. The job has required him to push back against government misconduct, and represent clients who had an inadequate defense—like Robert Wayne Holsey, who was executed in 2014 even though his lawyer was an alcoholic who drank a quart of vodka a day during his trial.

“It’s a brutal, enormously difficult, emotionally draining practice,” Bright told the New York Times in 1993. “There are no resources to do the job well, there’s a tremendous amount of public hostility, and it’s financially devastating to most lawyers. You have to be out of your head to take one of these cases.”

Now boasting a staff of 26, the 40-year-old SCHR has won four of its last five U.S. Supreme Court death penalty cases, exonerated an Alabama man convicted of murder by showing he had an alibi, and helped overturn dozens of death sentences. It was a series of SCHR lawsuits that spurred lawmakers in the early 2000s to create the Georgia Public Defender Council, a statewide system considered to be a major upgrade over the existing patchwork of local public defender offices.

Two MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winners have been Bright protégés. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Bryan Stevenson joined the SCHR, sleeping on Bright’s lumpy couch for a year. Four years later, Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which has since saved more than 100 men from execution. And when Rapping founded Gideon’s Promise in 2007 to train public defenders across the country, Bright gave the fledging program space in the SCHR’s offices.

“We wouldn’t have existed without Steve,” Rapping says. “We’re carrying out Steve’s vision.”

Bright also has taught at Yale Law School since 1993 and lectured at Harvard, Emory, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago. One lecture inspired Zack Greenamyre, a recent Harvard law grad who interned last summer at the SCHR, to work toward representing Atlanta inmates stuck in jail because they’re too poor to pay their bail.

Bright now divides his time between work in Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Yale; and, since 2008, his home in Kentucky with his wife, Charlotta, a retired death penalty lawyer. It’s not a luxurious lifestyle. For several decades he only owned one suit, and he often drinks vanilla Ensure shakes in lieu of meals.

“I have always been as frugal as I can be in order to help as many people as we can with what we have,” Bright says. “I do not believe that I have made any sacrifices.”

Bright, who opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, believes he could live to see it abolished across the country. Until then, he’ll keep fighting for indigent defendants and recruiting young lawyers to his cause.

“No matter how strongly you feel about punishing people who commit crimes, a basic American idea is that if there’s going to be a fight, it ought to be a fair fight,” he says. “No matter how you feel about the death penalty, or any kind of punishment, we have to get it right.”

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.