Just Mercy is required reading. No ‘should be’ about it.
Bryan Stevenson was a Harvard Law student questioning his path, wondering if he’d made a colossal mistake in choosing law when he spent a few weeks working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. An encounter with an inmate on death row allowed Stevenson to find his purpose, a purpose he dedicated his career and life to from that moment forward. As a new attorney, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. The EJI challenges the death penalty and excessive punishment and provides re-entry assistance to formerly incarcerated people. Just Mercy is a deep dive into Stevenson’s practice and cases.
Early in his career, Stevenson arrives in the town here Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird with the intention of establishing an EJI office before returning to Atlanta. While there, he represents several cases that he includes in Just Mercy – most prominently is Walter McMillian, a man who is convicted of the murder of a young white woman and sentenced to death based solely on the testimony of a white felon. McMillian was accused of committing the murder at a time when he was home, surrounded by family who all claimed that it he couldn’t possibly have committed the crime. The countless witnesses still carried less weight than a single white man saying McMillian was guilty. Stevenson is determined to prove McMillian’s innocence, win him his freedom and save his life.
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Throughout Just Mercy, the racism that permeates the town and judicial system is palpable, making the town’s championing of their literary roots ironic and uncomfortable. The town, as a whole, personifies the idea that you can claim to herald progress, but be complicit in a broken system. This book will open your eyes to just how broken the system is, how much people in positions of power do not care about justice so long as they’re closing cases, and how the notion that wrongful convictions are rare is false.
What I most appreciated about Stevenson’s perspective is that compassion drives his work and his argument for mercy, not punishment, driving the criminal justice system. Mental illness is overlooked and ignored in the name of closing a case rather than mitigating the crime. The discussions surrounding mental illness were particularly compelling and, often, downright disturbing in how mentally ill clients were mistreated.
Despite Stevenson’s attempts to prove his clients’ innocence, he is met with roadblock after roadblock of people who want to keep the system broken because it works for them. To know this is real, based on true events, that this is happening daily, is terrifying. There were moments when I thought, “there’s no way a judge can justify a decision against freedom” and then … they upheld a conviction that was clearly erroneous.
There are many other cases in this book– a veteran suffering from PTSD, a child who killed his abusive father, a woman who gave birth to a stillborn and was accused of murdering the child by a neighbor, another man wrongfully convicted who lost 30 years to death row. Each story attention to issues that contribute to the failures of the criminal justice system. This book challenges, it educates, it pierces the veil that hides misconceptions about justice, and reminds us that no person should be reduced to the worst thing they ever did. In addition, it sheds light on wrongful convictions and reminds us that for every person serving time for a crime they didn’t commit, the real perpetrator remains unscathed, which subverts any notion of justice cited to uphold the wrongful conviction. The person who killed the woman that McMillian was accused of murdering never served time. While the family wanted justice and were told they received it, what they actually got was a false sense of security that robbed an innocent man of six years of his life.
I could go on for ages about the importance and incredible work of Stevenson, but I recommend you just read the book. If you’ve read it or if you read it in the future, I would love to discuss!