Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson
Published 2014 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: bought for my Nook

Publisher's Summary:
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever. 

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

My Thoughts:
Read this book. Read it now. There are a lot of great books out there about racism right now that should be read but this one, this one addresses both racism and the ways that our justice system has failed all of us, primary persons of color and the poor. Let's start with some numbers.
"The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970's to 2.3 million people today [2014].There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated."
"Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. We've created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a costly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than half-million people in states or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980. We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like "Three strikes and you're out" to communicate our toughness. We've given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. We've institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them "criminal"..."
There are a lot of numbers in this book, all of them appalling. But this book is not about numbers, it's about the people those numbers represent. The children as young a twelve who were sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, the people who are in prison because the justice system allowed them to illegally be judged by a jury not of their peers, those who are incarcerated solely because a crime needed to be solved and this person just happened to be handy and those whose terrible pasts are never taken into consideration. It is about all of the people who have been mistreated by the system and how slavery evolved into the systemic racism that results in a disproportionate number of persons of color being incarcerated.
"In poor urban neighborhoods across the United States, black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. Even though many of these children have done nothing wrong, they are targeted by police, presumed guilty, and suspected by law enforcement of being dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. The random stops, questioning, and harassment dramatically increase the risk of arrest for petty crimes. Many of these children develop criminal records for behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity."
The story of Walter McMillan, who was not just a man who insisted he was innocent but who the prosecution knew was innocent before they railroaded him into a conviction that carried the death penalty, is interspersed with chapters about how Stevenson came to start Equal Justice Initiative and the many other people who EJI has fought to save, including all children who were sentenced to life in prison. When people demand the police be defunded now, this book makes it clear what reallocating the monies spent on police budgets might be better used for. The system is broken, from the abuse that goes on reported and unstopped to the substance abuse that goes untreated to the lack of rehabilitation in our facilities.  

Walter was Stevenson's first case and the person he came to think of as a brother. You know, as you read, that things are going to go very badly for Walter or this book might not exist; but you cannot believe how cruel the system is to him at every turn. It is at once heartbreaking and infuriating. What makes the entire case all the more interesting is that it happened in Monroe County, Alabama, home of Harper Lee and the setting of her book, To Kill A Mockingbird. In an entirely unironic way, the people of Monroeville celebrate her book, a book that includes the prosecution of an innocent black man, all while they championed the conviction of another innocent black man. 

So I come back to this: read this book. It will open your eyes. It will make you rethink things you may have thought to be truths. I hope it will make you as angry as it makes you sad. Ultimately, there is this:
"The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."


  1. Great review, thanks! I did not yet read the book, but I have followed the EJI website for quite a while.

  2. This was a favorite a few years ago! I still need to see movie.

    1. I was going to watch it last night but then when I turned on the tv "Selma" was just starting so I watched that instead. Hopefully still this weekend but maybe not until next week.

  3. I could not believe how children were sentenced to death. It seemed so wrong that I had to look it up. And that just them being on death row, made them automatic prey to what goes on behind closed doors. Sickening. It was my book club pick but honestly, I may quit my club over it because some of the comments were bothersome to me. Racist, but they don't see them as racist. I have one more book to discuss with them, one that I wanted to read but the last couple of books have all prompted comments that have rubbed me the wrong way. Like how the homeless choose to be homeless. Ugh. I digress.

    1. I must confess that sometimes when I read about crimes committed by teenagers, it has crossed my mind that they deserve to be sentenced as adults, that they understand what they are doing. But after reading this, and being reminded of how undeveloped the teenage brain is, I'm completely rethinking that. And to sentence them to life in prison is just barbaric.