With recent events across the nation, the deaths of several unarmed black men, the deaths of policemen, Just Mercy is an incredibly timely read. As I read, I came to a new understanding of just how the deck is stacked against poor criminals and poor criminal suspects in particular, even as I questioned the author’s perspective on the crimes he wrote about. Seemingly, according to Bryan Stevenson, there are no heinous crimes deserving of the death penalty, and there are only misunderstood and wrongly convicted persons on death row.
Notwithstanding the author’s preconceptions about the justice system and the death penalty, his book and the stories recounted therein are well worth reading. If you are a critic of the death penalty, you will find your views bolstered and supported. If you are a proponent of the death penalty as a just punishment in certain crimes, you will find your support for it challenged. And that’s a good thing. The imposition of execution in response to crimes of murder and rape should only be undertaken by a society and a justice system under very limited circumstances and after much consideration, if at all.
So, Bryan Stevenson tells in his book the stories of several clients of his Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. The story of one client, Walter McMillan, a black man who is sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit. The book tells the stories of other death row prisoners who were helped, or not, by Stevenson’s EJI, but the thread that runs through the entire book is Mr. McMillan’s story of injustice, eventual freedom, and continued brokenness and struggle even after his release from prison.
Some quotes from the book show Stevenson’s perspective on mercy and justice:
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”
“At the church meeting, I spoke mostly about Walter’s case, but I also reminded people that when the woman accused of adultery was brought to Jesus, he told the accusers who wanted to stone her to death, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ The woman’s accusers retreated, and Jesus forgave her and urged her to sin no more. But today, our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. I told the congregation that we can’t simply watch that happen. I told them we have to be stone catchers.”
Author John Grisham wrote about this book on Goodreads: “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”
The other scene in the book that impressed me was when the author, who also happens to be a black man, describes his own encounter with the Atlanta (I think) police. Because he was sitting in his own car outside his own apartment for an extended period of time, listening to music, the police stopped, ordered him out of the car, and searched and questioned him. That’s a scary experience, and apparently it’s one that happens repeatedly and disproportionally to people of color, especially black men. One more quote:
“Of course innocent mistakes occur but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden born by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”
This book is a part of that deeper conversation, and it certainly made me think about some of my own presumptions and attitudes.