Book review: “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson

I wanted to reassure Reverend Jasper that we are still trying to do the work.

I finished Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, an absolutely powerful portrayal of the continuation in the fight for civil rights. The main storyline of the book follows the case of Walter McMillian who was falsely accused of murder and ends up on death row an innocent man. What is so scary is how easily this occurs. A county prosecution is more concerned with “a sense of closure” surrounding the unaccounted for death, and efficiency than the rights of the accused. They hide evidence unlawfully from the defense, they pressure witnesses to give false testimony, and this is all combined with bomb threats and other intimidation tactics to the team of lawyers who have taken on the case. “But things like this don’t happen anymore! This is the 21st century.” They can and they do. While we value local autonomy, it can result in the most cruel of injustices when there is no accountability. Stevenson sums this up beautifully when McMillian is finally acquitted:

Your Honor, I just want to say this before we adjourn. It was far too easy to convict this wrongly accused man for murder and send him to death row for something he didn’t do and much too hard to win his freedom after proving his innocence. We have serious and important work that must be done in this state.

And more fully near the end of the book:

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. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous.

Walter McMillian’s case is so moving to the audience because he is innocent. It is often difficult to get sympathy from the public when human rights and civil rights are violated when a crime has been committed– no matter the circumstances. Walter’s story alternates with chapters throughout the book documenting Stevenson’s work with other death row inmates, many of them children. One that moved me to the core was the story of Charlie, a thirteen-year-old sentenced to death for the murder of his mother’s current boyfriend. This wasn’t a wicked murder done in cold blood. The boyfriend regularly abused Charlie and his mom. That night, he, George, had come home drunk. He pushed Charlie’s mom so hard that she slammed into the countertop, knocking her over bleeding and unconscious. George stormed off into the other room. Charlie was left with his mom, thinking she was dying. The only phone in the house was in George’s room. He waited several hours before he worked up the courage to go in there. In a move mixed with grief and rage, he went to George’s drawer where he knew he kept a gun and shot him. When he called 911, the police arrested him for murder.

One of the main theses of Just Mercy is that many of those who commit violence are themselves victims of violence. Is our system going to allow them a way out of the circle of violence, or is it going to perpetuate it?

One thing you can’t help but notice is the indifference, even hypocrisy of some of the individuals involved in these cases. This is us. We observe from a distance. We wonder, “why do they have to go and make this so political?” Standing up for human rights shouldn’t be political. The juxtaposition in this scene really hit it home for me:

I had gone to the clerk’s office to pick up files and the staff had asked me where I was from. When I said Montgomery, they launched into a lecture about Monroeville’s prominence as a result of Harper Lee and her famous novel. I remember how the clerk had chatted me up.

*”Have you ever read the book? It’s a wonderful story. This is a famous place. They made the old courthouse a museum, and when they made the movie Gregory Peck came here. You should go over there and stand where Mr. Peck stood– I mean, where Atticus Finch stood.”

She giggled with excitement, although I imagine she said the same thing to every out-of-town attorney who wandered in. She continued talking enthusiastically about the story until I promised to visit the museum as soon as I could. I refrained from explaining that I was too busy working the case of an innocent black man the community was trying to execute after a racially biased prosecution.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the whole book is Stevenson’s encounter with an old woman in the courthouse after a long and trying day. The woman had been sitting in on the trial, despite having no connection to the defendant. Bryan finds out that this woman had a grandson who was murdered by two teenagers. She went to their trial grieving. But when she got there, she found that it made it worse knowing those boys would be locked away the rest of their lives. Now she regularly comes to the courthouse to try to alleviate others’ pain:

When I first came, I’d look for people who had lost someone to murder or some violent crime. Then it got to the point where some of the ones grieving the most were the ones whose children or parents were on trial, so I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it. All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.

What a beautiful use of the scripture “Let he who hath no sin cast the first stone.” We need to come closer to people’s pain, we need to extend mercy, we need to do better.

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