A Death Row Inmate's Haunting Observation Hours Before Execution

"More people have said, 'What can I do to help you?' in the last 14 hours of my life than they ever did in the first 19 years."

As a death row attorney whom Desmond Tutu has called  "America's young Nelson Mandela," Bryan Stevenson has worked with people who most of society has already cast aside. For many of these condemned convicts, however, that happened long before they entered prison walls.

Take Herbert Richardson, for example. Richardson, Stevenson says, had returned from the Vietnam War emotionally disturbed and without the support and resources to overcome the trauma. Then, in 1977, Richardson became upset by the end of a relationship and left a homemade bomb on the porch of his ex-girlfriend's home. The woman's 11-year-old niece picked up the bomb, and it exploded. She died instantly.

A year later, Richardson was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. A series of appeals was each time denied, and just one month before his execution date, Richardson called upon Stevenson to help in the eleventh hour. The lawyer filed for an emergency stay of execution, but, in his words, it was too late. The stay was rejected, and Richardson was scheduled to die at midnight on August 18, 1989.

Stevenson went to the prison on the day of the execution and, as he tells Oprah during an interview for "SuperSoul Sunday," what his client said that day has always haunted him.

"I was back there with him right before the execution, and he was saying to me, 'All day long, people have been saying, What can I do to help you? Can we get you water? Can we get you coffee? Can we get you stamps to mail your last letter?'" Stevenson says. "And I never will forget him saying to me... 'Bryan, it's been so strange. More people have said, What can I do to help you? in the last 14 hours of my life than they ever did in the first 19 years of my life.'"

Stevenson found the observation both profound and tragic.

"I was holding his hands, standing there with him and thinking, 'Yeah, where were they when you were 3 when your mom died? Where were they when you were 7 and you were experimenting with drugs? Where were they when you were a young teenager returning from Vietnam traumatized and drug-addicted?" Stevenson says.

As those questions swirled through Stevenson's mind, his client was pulled away. Richardson was strapped into the electric chair and executed; he died at 12:14 a.m. The experience changed Stevenson forever.

"The shame of that was, for me, what I couldn't let go," he says. "They had the guards come in and shave the hair off [Richardson's] body to prepare him for execution, and I watched those men do that. I don't think I'd ever seen human beings more pained by something they had to do."

Though Stevenson certainly believes that people who commit horrific crimes deserve to face consequences, he does not believe the consequence should be death.

"The pain and shame of that made me believe that we can do better," Stevenson says.

"SuperSoul Sunday" airs Sundays at 7 p.m. ET on OWN.

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