Thursday, April 2, 2020

Book Review: Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

By Christine Sheller

Just Mercy is a weaving of personal narrative, storytelling, and reasons to hope in the midst of a criminal justice system that’s broken.  Stevenson begins with some facts about incarceration and execution, along with his story about how he came to be founder and director of EJI- Equal Justice Initiative.
His journey from law school to SPDC- Southern Prisoners Defense Committee- to EJI is interesting, but the work he gets into is absolutely riveting.

Stevenson, throughout the book, follows one of his first cases, of one particular man, hailing from Monroeville, Alabama who had a wrongful conviction and was an innocent man on death row in an Alabama prison.  The fight for his exoneration spans years.  In the midst of this story, he tells many smaller stories of other incarcerated men and women and youth.  He first focuses on wrongful convictions then adds on other projects as well, most notably minors serving in adult prisons for juvenile crimes where they were either innocent, or they were too young and were intellectually or emotionally deficit to have to serve time;  Stevenson then adds a focus at EJI on ending juveniles serving time in adult prisons, or in lifetime sentences.  By the time he wrote his book, he also had started an educational program within EJI and has numerous staff attorneys and interns. 

His is also a commentary on racism, on classism, and sexism.  The case the book follows most closely is the story of an African- American man from Alabama who became accused in a local murder after all leads led nowhere, until a troubled, deranged man made up a story that included Walter McMillian.  The local police and sheriff’s departments pushed their way through the legal system, and eventually Walter was condemned to death.

The criminal justice system is broken.  Stevenson writes extensively about injustices in our American justice system.  It is so encouraging to hear him tell of how he’s worked on hundreds of cases and won justice for them.

In the beginning of his book, Stevenson lays out the landscape of the changing atmosphere of our justice system in the last forty to fifty years..  In the 1980’s when he first visited someone on death row as a law student, America was in the first stages of a “radical transformation” that led to the U.S. being an “unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation” that resulted in mass imprisonment “that has no historic parallel”  (Stevenson 15).  The prison population increased from the early 1970’s with 300,000 to 2.3 million today.  There are approximately 6 million people on probation or parole.  One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 was expected to go to jail or prison.  One in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated (Stevenson 15; citing Bonczar, Thomas in “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974- 2001”).

Quoting Stevenson again, “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions.  Thousands more await their execution on death row.  Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve.  For years we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”  (Stevenson 15)  Like stated previously, this becomes a larger project for him later in the book- helping juveniles.  The other atrocity about juveniles in adult prisons, is that they are at more risk of being the victim of violence or rape by other inmates.  At the same time, women inmates are at risk of being sexually assaulted by male guards and prison staff.  Stevenson relayed that some of his clients experienced these things.

As the title suggests, this story is a “story of justice and redemption.”  Stevenson is a gifted lawyer, and relentless, not giving up, always finding another angle when one idea/ push in the legal system leads to a dead end.  He tells a story of his own childhood memory of redemption.  He gives statistics on juveniles being gifted with exoneration or lesser sentences after a landmark Supreme Court ruling Stevenson worked on. 

Finally, he suggests that just mercy includes the question about the death penalty:  the question is not: does a prisoner deserve capital punishment, but do we deserve to kill?  He relates the inspiration he gained from his client, Walter McMillian.  “Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.  Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.”  Walter had forgiven his naysayers and accusers.  Stevenson says of McMillian, “...In the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation…” (Stevenson 314)

Christine Sheller is coordinator and editor at Iowa Peace Network.

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