“My frantic search for a ‘post-graduation plan’ led me to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about your field of study to enroll.” (4) I knew almost immediately that I had an affinity with Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy (2014). He went to law school because he wasn’t sure what else to do, and he never felt like he fit in. I ended up in law school in the same way and wondered why everyone was so excited about working for big law firms. A part of me wanted to work on death penalty cases after law school; It was the only part of law for which I actually felt passionate. Instead, I flailed around without direction, finding some safe, stable legal work before bowing out of the law profession altogether.
Stevenson, on the other hand, drove down South and started the Equal Justice Initiative, primarily assisting clients on death row. He was making almost nothing, working an incredible schedule, inundated with potential clients he did not have resources to help, and often faced with an indifferent and/or hostile community and legal system. I admire Stevenson and the work he’s done very much. I think I would have broken under the frustration, the workload, the setbacks, and the ridiculous injustices. Yet Stevenson has continued this tiresome struggle for justice for over thirty years, making a profound difference in particular lives as well as sweeping changes in the entire justice system.
Just Mercy focuses primarily on the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man, tried, convicted, and sent to death row for the murder of a white store clerk in Alabama, ironically the city famed as Lee Harper’s hometown. As Stevenson spelled out the details of McMillian’s case, I had to double check the dates, wanting to believe that something so egregious wouldn’t happen as recently as the 1980’s. The police went out of their way to set up McMillian with absolutely no evidence and a ridiculous amount of exculpatory evidence. The police put him on death row before the trial in order to intimidate him. Yet, the community stayed willingly and blindfully ignorant. The judge, named after Robert E. Lee, called Stevenson as soon as he got on the case to warn him off of it, telling him that McMillian was a criminal and a drug dealer.
McMillian’s story gave Just Mercy a disturbing and suspenseful throughline, but Stevenson also describes other clients and issues he dealt with in his long criminal law career. “We were assisting clients on death row, challenging excessive punishments, helping disabled prisoners, assisting children incarcerated in the adult system, and looking at ways to expose racial bias, discrimination against the poor, and the abuse of power. It was overwhelming but gratifying.” (250) Much of his focus was on children sentenced to prison for life without parole and the mentally disabled. One account that made me sick to my stomach (obviously before Stevenson’s time) was that of George Stinney, Jr., a 14-year-old, and the youngest death penalty victim in the 20th century–killed by South Carolina and the electric chair in 1944. Besides the fact that the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment for anyone, let alone a child, the trial was an absurd parody of justice that felt more like a lynching. I wanted to throw up.
Stevenson primarily sticks with the cases and issues where he was able to make a difference, so the book is not as depressing and hopeless as you might think–although it still haunts me. Even though this is not a light read, I would highly recommend this book to anyone. It is a passionate, compassionate, and well-written.
-“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent–strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.” (294)
For more information, check out:
-The Death Penalty Information Center
–The Thin Blue Line (1988 Documentary)
–Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon
-“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” (17)
-“Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right?” (288)
-“In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse.” (90)
-“[C]apital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.'” (6)
-“A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage–40% opposed.” (34)
-[T]he race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in the U.S. (142)
Find all of my reviews on my blog.