County judge: Be agents of mercy, change

One passionate individual can right injustice — one person at a time.

Stephen Heimann learned that early in life when a cousin invited Army buddies from Vietnam to the family’s small hometown of Monroeville in northeastern Indiana. Heimann mentioned that a number of his relatives had long been prejudiced against people of other races — until the cousin introduced two of the black Army pals as lifesavers of him and his unit in Vietnam.

The relative demanded that his family members stop their racism.

“He had a personal experience with a fellow human being who changed him,” Heimann said. “Before that, there was just plain ignorance.”

Heimann, who has served as a Bartholomew Circuit Court judge since October 1991, spoke at Thursday night’s Columbus Bartholomew County Area Branch of the NAACP’s 25th Annual Freedom Fund Scholarship Banquet. Theme of his message was “Pursuing Liberty in the Face of Injustice.”

The event unfolded before more than 120 people — more than double last year’s crowd and also more diverse — at Columbus’ Donner Center. The audience consisted of elected officials, ministry leaders, professors, foundation heads, members of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, business leaders and executives, retirees and high school students.

Listeners gave Heimann a standing ovation.

“His comments were very impactful — especially when he shared the personal things,” said the Rev. Mike Harris, pastor of Elizabethtown’s Faith Hope and Love Church of God In Christ and leader of the local African-American Ministers Alliance.

Harris said he liked the fact that Heimann has been willing to ask what action can be taken to right injustice, since he said the alliance has been examining the same thing.

In another personal story of racism in his hometown shared during his speech, the judge’s high school basketball coach once told him to carefully watch an opposing all-black team for signs of troublemaking when the two squads had to share the same locker room.

Later, as a teen idolizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Heimann participated in an exchange program in South Africa, where he found racism rampant.

But as a student at Wabash College, Heimann had a black roommate. And Heimann became a member of the NAACP in 1972.

“I actually used to wish I was black,” he said, theorizing that he could trigger more dramatic racial change that way.

Heimann also thought serving in the Peace Corps in far-flung locales might be the most powerful way to fight the world’s injustices. But then wife Ann reminded him of something.

“Steve,” she told him, “all we need to do in this world is to help our neighbors — and serve those whom we come in contact with.”

Heimann, who has plans to retire from the bench at the end of next year, has found law to be a effective way to promote justice, although he confessed he hardly has handled every defendant as he should have.

Heimann’s lengthy, wide-ranging remarks covered bits of history on American slavery (“the original sin of the United States of America”) to national statistics on black males’ high rate of incarceration and the need for alternatives for many offenders.

Near his closing, he asked the audience to realize that everyone is broken in some way.

“If we can embrace our brokenness,” Heimann said, “then it will create a need and a desire for mercy — a mercy for others.”

For further reading

Bartholomew County Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann quoted from the book “Just Mercy” by black author and attorney Brian Stephenson during his address at Thursday’s Columbus Bartholomew County Area Branch of the NAACP 25th Annual Freedom Fund Scholarship Banquet.

Heimann also gave away copies of the book to some event attendees.

Stephenson has become known for working on death-penalty cases and is recognized for his efforts in leading the Equal Justice Institute.

“This is an extraordinary book,” Heimann said.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.