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Heard at Hopkins Commencement: Conversations about hope, ethics, law, moral values in higher educati


Several months ago, I wrote a blog post about Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree who, in the face of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, has lent his voice to raise awareness about the illness and the need for a cure.

I met Charles Ogletree in the fall of 1978 on the steps of the Supreme Court. We were both students: him, a 2L student at Harvard law, and me, an undergrad at Johns Hopkins. We were at the Supreme Court hoping to hear oral arguments in the landmark Bakke case. As scores of us waited in line all night to get one of the few coveted seats in the court the next morning, Ogletree talked passionately about the power of the law as an agent for social justice and change. His words stayed with me and, in the decades to come, it was no surprise to see him emerge as one of the country’s greatest legal scholars.

Last week, I met another transformative legal jurist, also from Harvard — Bryan Stevenson. When he graduated from law school, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to provide legal representation to those who are poor and wrongfully convicted. This fall, almost 40 years to the day after I met Ogletree outside the Supreme Court, Bryan Stevenson is headed to the High Court, not to hear oral arguments, but rather to make one. More on that in a moment.

Johns Hopkins invited Stevenson to be this year's keynote commencement speaker. At a time when our civil discourse has never been more uncivil or divisive, and when many are questioning the value of higher education in guiding a student’s moral compass and identity, Stevenson’s speech was the balm of Gilead. His message to students: their newly earned degree is authorization to change the world. His advice for success was proximity: you need to be close to people who are suffering, you need to change the narrative and challenge those stories that the culture tells us which are false, you need to stay hopeful-Hope is our superpower and, because of that, sometimes you need to do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient in order to keep that hope alive.

Listening to his commencement speech took me back to my own Hopkins graduation. In 1979, the speaker was Dick Cavett, a choice clearly based more on our parents’ tastes than the students'. So, no surprise and with all due respect to Dick, I don't remember a word of what he said. 40 years hence I believe the class of 2018 will remember what they heard.

After listening to Stevenson’s inspirational speech and then watching what seemed like literally thousands of students come up on stage to receive congratulations from President Daniels, I thought of another Hopkins graduate, also a lawyer, who by every measure missed out on all the moral lessons that higher education strives to impart.

I am talking about the NY man whose racist rant a few months back was caught on camera and went viral. He succeeded in earning degrees from impressive universities, such as Hopkins and George Washington’s Law School, and yet he stands as a colossal failure in learning an important lesson: that college is also about shaping one's moral values and not just providing a pathway to a lucrative career. All the more reason why Bryan Stevenson’s speech was so stirring and a reflection of how he lives his life. And, wouldn't you know it, Stevenson just happens to be working on a potentially landmark case involving Dementia.

At a pre-commencement dinner , Stevenson briefly mentioned his case before the Supreme Court, Madison v. Alabama. Vernon Madison has been on death row for 30 years and has vascular dementia. After suffering a series of strokes, his dementia is so advanced he doesn’t know who he is and is blind, incontinent, and barely able to speak or move.

In recent months, if you have been around me for any amount of time, you won’t be surprised to hear I cornered Stevenson the next day and spent 30 minutes talking his ear off about Alzheimer’s and dementia.

I knew from my research that Alzheimer’s and dementia are a problem in prisons, especially as prison populations age. Moreover, prisoners may even be more prone to dementia than the general population because of increased risk factors, including hypertension, diabetes, limited education, smoking, depression, and even brain injuries from the violence that often occurs while incarcerated.

However, I had never thought of the legal and ethical ramifications until Stevenson mentioned his case before the Supreme Court. While it has been decades since I sat in a constitutional law class, I certainly remember the 8th amendment — “How can you execute a man who has no recollection of what he did; a person with no ability to understand the punishment, or why the punishment is happening." If that does not meet the definition of “cruel and unusual,” I don't know what does!

We know the rationales and theories behind incarceration. Few believe it’s about rehabilitation — to help offenders learn the error of their ways, rehabilitate, and then return to society. But even if we were to buy into the fantasy, obviously someone with severe dementia cannot be rehabilitated. Nor can any notion of deterrence be served, since, again, someone with severe dementia has lost the capacity to be a threat. So incarceration is much more about retributive justice — we are inflicting commensurate pain for acts we consider heinous.

More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious illness constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The way I see it, under no rationale of punishment or understanding of justice, can you justify the execution of a man with dementia.

I will be following the case this Fall (although I won’t be sleeping on the Supreme Court steps — age takes a toll). But I will keep you updated and I continue to believe that, as Stevenson told the graduates, “hope is our superpower.”

“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close”

~ Bryan Stevenson’s Grandmother

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