Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town Summary

Pete Earley

Circumstantial Evidence

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE: DEATH, LIFE, AND JUSTICE IN A SOUTHERN TOWN, is the well-written story of the unjust prosecution and imprisonment of Walter McMillan, a local black laborer, for the murder of a popular white female college student in Monroeville, Alabama. After a trial that lasted for less than three days, McMillan spent six years on death row before being cleared of the charges, thanks almost singlehandedly to the efforts of dedicated African American civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson, a campaigner against the death penalty, noticed the McMillan case because McMillan had no prior criminal record, unlike most death-row inmates. His early appeals and investigations were thwarted by an uncooperative state court system. By the time that Stevenson had uncovered various irregularities concerning the case, he and his colleagues were receiving numerous anonymous threats. Only after the case received national attention, through a feature on the CBS news magazine 60 MINUTES, did the state finally confess to the errors and misrepresentations that had been committed in order to prosecute McMillan.

Coincidentally, Monroeville is the acknowledged setting of Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel of Southern injustice, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Earley makes much of the parallel between the event in the novel and in the McMillan case, and is quick to point out the parallels between fiction and reality. Southerners may get an occasional chuckle out of some of the inaccuracies in the book, including references to such nonexistent entities as coveys of pheasant and Alabama University, but the description of the appalling and malevolent Alabama system of justice will cut most laughter off short.