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OC hosts Complex Dialogue series & History Speaks, igniting conversation around criminal justice reform

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On Christmas Day, 2019, the film adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 New York Times Bestseller Just Mercy was released in theaters. OC’s Black Student Union purchased and resold tickets to the campus community for only $2 and hosted a movie night.

One year prior, Stevenson visited the Oklahoma Christian University campus addressing the desperate need for reform in our criminal justice system. The Harvard lawyer spoke of innocent people who are convicted, tragic circumstances of youth incarceration, the problem of utilizing our prisons for mental health and drug rehabilitation and offered the solution of proximity. He encouraged students, as well as leaders from all facets of Oklahoma’s justice system, to become involved in a personal way.

Bryan Stevenson signs copies of book Just Mercy, later turned into movie

Since 1989, exonerees have lost 20,000+ years in jail. As of 2014, 340 innocent people have fallen victim to capital punishment since 1973, and 4.1% of all prisoners on death row are innocent.

Fortunately, leaders like Bryan Stevenson continue to ignite change in a troubled system.

"Without ordinary heroes like Bryan Stevenson, the justice system would look different today than it did even a few decades ago,” OC student Elise Miller said. “I am extremely proud to attend a university where complex conversations are important and world-changers are invited to share their wisdom.”

Fresh out of law school, Stevenson witnessed a desperately underserved incarcerated population in the state of Alabama. Inmates on death row had no legal representation, juveniles were being treated like adults and Stevenson refused to look the other way. Just Mercy primarily follows Stevenson’s journey with Walter McMillan, who the jury wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison. The court based their case on false witness, failing to take statements from those who were with McMillan the day of the murder. After five years, five appeals and an abundance of misreporting, Stevenson won McMillan’s release in 1993, after he had lost six years in solitary confinement on death row.

Thanks to the affordable tickets sponsored by the Black Student Union, students, employees, friends and family became more aware of the injustice within the criminal justice system too many people fall victim to, even today.

“I am beyond grateful that BSU hosted a showing of Just Mercy for us to continue the dialogue that Bryan Stevenson started on campus,” OC student Kiva Maxwell said. “My encouragement is to read the book, watch the movie, do your research and get active. You will be better for it, and so will the greater OC Community.”

Hannibal Johnson taught campus about life before and after the Tulsa Race Massacre

Stevenson’s visit to campus is just one step in OC’s journey to telling a complete history, recognizing stories that have been omitted from textbooks. In addition to Stevenson, many leaders in law enforcement and those who have fallen victim to the justice system have visited OC’s campus to share their story. On Feb. 3, OC hosted Raymond Santana of the Central Park Five during the History Speaks program. Santana lost 5 years in jail and was wrongfully convicted at the young age of 14. In the fall of 2019, attorney and author Hannibal Johnson spoke to the campus about the realities of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a tragedy long lost to history curriculum in our public schools.

Raymond Santana spoke about life as an exoneree at History Speaks 2020

Stevenson’s event was a part of OC’s Complex Dialogue series, which brings insightful speakers to campus who show ways to combat injustice. The afternoon before Stevenson’s visit, OC hosted Christy Sheppard in a community forum made up of judges to victims. Sheppard spoke about the murder of her cousin Debbie Carter and her delayed justice. In this case, two men lost over a decade in prison for the murder before being exonerated. Sheppard digs into the guilt, tragedy and whirlwind surrounding the case, which eventually turned into a Netflix documentary, “The Innocent Man.”

In 2010, OC hosted the Women Incarcerated Summit as a part of the Complex Dialogue series. Those speaking discussed Oklahoma’s unfortunately high female incarceration rate. Panelists spoke about the impact this incarceration rate has on the community. Children of incarcerated women more likely end up getting in trouble. Even more, many people who end up in jail don’t deserve to be there. As a result, Oklahoma increasingly needs people to fight for the underrepresented.

Criminal Justice students with Prof. Sid Brown visit court house

Criminal Justice students at OC follow Stevenson’s advice regarding proximity. They personally experience courtrooms where they learn about the realities of drug, mental health and diversion cases, witnessing first-hand how to join together with leaders who devote their lives to improving Oklahoma’s overburdened courts and jails. In addition, students connected with leaders both on and off campus. They joined over 1,450 other change-makers in OC’s 2019 Criminal Justice Conference, diving deeper into the complexities of justice in one of the campus’s biggest conferences.

With the help of students, faculty, staff and the community, OC has sparked difficult conversation around the need for criminal justice reform in Oklahoma. Thanks to the numerous guest speakers willing to share their struggle with social justice, our students will grow to be the next generation of change-makers.