MONROEVILLE, Ala., the birthplace of Harper Lee, was the thinly disguised setting of her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird."
There in 1987 life imitated her grim story of justice corrupted by racism.
Walter McMillian was charged in 1987 with killing a young white woman. The white community assumed his guilt. Even before he was tried, he was held in a cell on death row.
His trial lasted a day and a half. The main witness against him, Ralph Myers, had a long criminal record. A dozen witnesses for Mr. McMillian said he was elsewhere at the time of the crime.
The jury convicted. It recommended a sentence of life without parole. But the judge, Robert E. Lee Key Jr., rejected the recommendation and sentenced Mr. McMillian to death.
Walter McMillian was not executed. The reason is that, a year after his conviction, a lawyer of rare dedication and skill took up his case. That was Bryan Stevenson, who had just begun work in a nonprofit law center set up in Alabama with a small amount of federal funds to handle appeals for people under sentence of death.
In 1991 the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Mr. McMillian's appeal. But Bryan Stevenson kept trying.
Ralph Myers recanted his testimony, saying he was pressured by the police in a week of interrogation before accusing Mr. McMillian. Mr. Stevenson showed that prosecutors had hidden crucial documents from the defense.
On Feb. 23, 1993, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Mr. McMillian's conviction. A week later prosecutors said they would not try him again. Walter McMillian was free.
The McMillian case is the subject of a gripping new book, "Circumstantial Evidence," by Pete Early. Mr. Early finished his book before the final bitter twist in the story: the twist that makes the case politically relevant today.
The radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, before recessing earlier this month, voted to eliminate Bryan Stevenson's office and his job.
If they have their way, a future Walter McMillian -- an innocent man railroaded to death row because of his race -- will probably be executed.
Mr. Stevenson's office is one of 20 Post-Conviction Defender Organizations, as they are called, in states with numbers of prisoners under sentence of death. All would be closed by the Republican bill.
The primary purpose of these modest law centers has been to assure that there are effective lawyers for prisoners when they seek their freedom by writs of habeas corpus in federal courts. The lawyers also help to some extent in state proceedings, as in the McMillian case.
Why would House Republicans want to close the centers down? The nominal reason is budget-cutting, but that cannot be serious. The total appropriation for the 20 centers this year is $19.8 million.
Bryan Stevenson is paid $27,000 a year, a fraction of what he would get elsewhere. His center costs the federal government $470,000.
A subcommittee of the Judicial Conference of the United States reported just two months ago that the Post-Conviction Defender Organizations played "a vital role" and were "a cost-effective, efficient means of providing representation in death penalty cases." The committee was headed by Judge Emmett R. Cox, who was appointed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals from Alabama by President Reagan.
Disbanding the centers will in fact be costly, because private lawyers will have to be appointed at greater expense to represent the prisoners. Federal law requires counsel for death row prisoners seeking habeas corpus in federal courts.
A real motivation for killing the centers must be political: to look tough on the death penalty. And no doubt some members of Congress do not want prisoners on death row to have experienced lawyers who might argue their appeals successfully.
The right to a competent lawyer is the mark of a civilized society. I know of no action by the radical Republicans as uncivilized, as indecent as this one.
It reminds me of what Joseph N. Welch said to Sen. Joseph McCarthy:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness."
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.