Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, Spiegel and Grau (2014)
Just Mercy was featured by many of the Powell’s staff in their best of 2014 book lists. So I added it to my pile of books and moved it to the top. I’m glad I did. It’s a compelling, yet searing indictment of the American justice system.
I had never heard of Bryan Stevenson before. It turns out that he is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. During law school at Harvard, he spent time in the south working on death row cases and found his life vocation. I’ll let him explain:
“Well, I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities.”
His book is a memoir of his journey over three decades, from his beginnings as a naive student through his successes and failures to his position as seasoned but wise executive director. Although many characters are introduced throughout, most remain the focus of a single chapter. Some weave a story throughout. But one remains central to the theme: Walter McMillian, a convicted murderer on death row. However, Walter was nowhere near the scene of the crime, as attested to by dozens of people including some policemen. Yet, the confession of a criminal coerced by the DA resulted in a bizarre, almost unbelievable story that convinced an illegal jury. McMilliam’s interactions with Stevenson may have made him the person he is.
Yet, the book is bigger than this. Weaving tales of 13 year-olds convicted and imprisoned for life without parole alongside poor white mothers who were convicted of killing their babies, despite them being stillborn, Stevenson’s narrative forces us to address the inequalities still in place today. Being born poor and black in some states predisposes them to suspicion. If arrested, such people have little hope of a fair trial.
Although I came to this book a supporter of the death penalty, backing up this belief with biblical justification (Gen. 9:6), Stevenson’s accounting of numerous convicted men and women languishing on death row who were later exonerated and declared innocent after the illegalities and improprieties in their trials were brought to light has made me reconsider. I must confess I am still working through this. As Stevenson says toward the end, “Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”
Although judicial improvements have occurred and personal redemption realized, many indeed due to Stevenson’s efforts, he leaves us realizing that there is still a long way to go.