Just Mercy is the true story of a lawyer’s work to win justice for those who have been failed by our justice system, especially death row inmates. For as long as I can remember I have been adamantly opposed to the death penalty. I think it is inhumane, abhorrent and has no place in a society that calls itself civilized. When I read this book I needed no convincing that the death penalty is wrong and should be abolished but if I did need convincing it surely would have swayed me. I feel that anyone who reads this book and still thinks the death penalty is acceptable is much more of a monster than any of the death row inmates profiled in it.
One of the reasons I am opposed to the death penalty is that there is the possibility of executing someone who is innocent and death is irreversible. I assumed that executing an innocent person is rare but that one innocent person executed is one too many. I assumed that when an innocent person was placed on death row it was the result of a terrible mistake. This book showed me just how wrong I was in that regard.
It’s said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. This book presented both the horrifying death row statistics and the horrifying individual stories of death row inmates. For every nine people on death row that are executed, one is exonerated. The story that gets the most attention in this book is that of Walter McMillian. He was put on death row for a murder that there was no evidence he committed and plenty of evidence he didn’t.
Over a dozen people could vouch that he was at a fish fry when the murder took place. Another criminal who was a notorious liar was coerced by the police to claim he’d seen Walter at the scene of the crime in exchange for a lightening of his own sentence. The story he spun made no sense and was full of holes but the police were feeling pressure to solve the case and Walter was an easy target because he was a black man who’d had an affair with a white woman. The town where Walter lived, where he was unjustly condemned due to the color of his skin, was a town that took pride in being the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently the irony was lost on its residents.
The death penalty is disproportionately applied to African Americans, who are condemned by juries that are disproportionately white. Other groups of people who are vulnerable to the death penalty include the poor, the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled. When you look at capital punishment in that light it seems like a form of eugenics.
There are a lot of great quotes in this book. Regarding the classicism inherent in our justice system, Stevenson says the system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. He says capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment. So much depends upon a good lawyer and those who can’t afford to hire a good lawyer end up paying with their lives.
McMillian’s story is just one of many horror stories in this books. There’s the story of the woman who gets 10 years in prison for three bad checks to buy her children Christmas presents, the woman who is sentenced to life in prison for supposedly killing a stillborn baby that she couldn’t afford prenatal care for, all those children from abusive homes who are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for non-homicidal crimes.
The saddest case of all is that of Jimmy Dill. He was an intellectually impaired man from an abusive home who was imprisoned after being involved in a shooting. When the shooting victim died nine months later as a result of poor medical care, he was sentenced to death. Bryan tried repeatedly to get Jimmy’s sentence overturned but ultimately he was unable to. On the night of his execution Jimmy spoke with a stutter to tell Bryan how grateful he was to him for trying to save his life. As Bryan listened to Jimmy speak, the tears rolled down his cheeks. As I read his account of Jimmy’s last words to him, the tears rolled down my cheeks.
The other part of the book that made me cry was the story of Avery Jenkins, a mentally ill death row inmate who had been severely abused as a child. Bryan had learned that his own career, education and socioeconomic status could not protect him from racism. Because of his skin color, a policeman had treated him like a criminal for listening to music in his car in his own neighborhood. When he entered the courtroom as a lawyer the judge would assume he was the defendant on trial. When he went to meet with Avery at the prison he noticed a car full of racist symbols and slogans that referenced cotton picking. When he entered the prison a guard made sure Bryan knew the truck was his. He then proceeded to talk to him in a threatening, aggressive manner and subject him to a humiliating strip search even though it was against protocol.
Avery experienced psychotic episodes and his speech was often incoherent. Every time Bryan met with him he would ask for a chocolate milkshake and Bryan would have to tell him he was sorry but it was against prison regulations. When Bryan appealed Avery’s death sentence in court he talked about the horrific abuse he had endured in foster care. The next time he went to meet with Avery at the prison he was surprised to be greeted by the guard in a friendly manner and not to be subjected to a strip search. The guard told him that he’d listened to what he’d said about Avery’s experiences in foster care. He said that he’d been abused in foster care himself and he hadn’t thought anyone had it as bad as he did. He also said that on the way back from the hearing he had bought Avery a chocolate milkshake.
Ultimately Just Mercy is a book that is as touching and uplifting as it is shocking and horrifying. Amidst all the misery, cruelty and unjust treatment, there is compassion, insight and mercy. Mercy and compassion are ultimately what are needed to fix our broken justice system. Bryan Stevenson would tell you that our broken justice system is a symptom of our broken selves. Through his work with the incarcerated, Stevenson came to realize that we are all broken. Sometimes we are broken by our own choices, sometimes by circumstances we never would have chosen but we have all hurt and been hurt by others. He realized that his motivation for doing the work that he did was his own brokenness He wanted justice for his clients and would do anything to get it for them but although the ways in which he and his clients had been broken were different, he could not pretend that their struggles were disconnected from his own.
Of all the great quotes in this book, the one that spoke to me the most was “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If you lie, you’re more than just a liar, if you steal, you’re more than just a thief and if you kill someone you’re more than just a murderer. Too often when someone commits a crime, I see and hear others speak of the accused in scathing categorical terms, as though the second they emerged from the womb they grabbed a physical or metaphorical weapon, committed a heinous crime and that is the sum total of their life.
And that’s where my own brokenness comes in. I’ve never been incarcerated but I’ve done plenty of things in my life that I’m not proud of and I’d hate for anyone to reduce me to those things. I spent 6 weeks in a mental hospital diagnosed with a mental illness I didn’t have. Walter McMillian spent 6 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The other day I was walking through the city reeling from an encounter I’d had with a stranger that had made me think bout how different my autism made me from everyone else, how hard it made my life, how it caused people to make false assumptions about me. I saw a mural on a building that featured a picture of a woman along with her name. She was listed as being a mural painter, an architecture major, a former prison inmate and an advocate for prison reform.
The sign also said that the U.S. contains 5 % of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Black people are similarly overrepresented in the prison system in proportion to their population. I’ve come to realize that sometimes the difference between those who are imprisoned and those who are free does not come down to a difference between their behavior or their morality but a difference between the shade of their skin color and the size of their bank account.
Bryan Stevenson says that we seek to to crush, imprison and kill the most vulnerable among us, not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tougher, less broken. We’d be better off using our brokenness as a source of compassion and mercy. The measure of a society’s character and commitment to justice is not how it treats those who are rich, powerful and respected but how it treats the most vulnerable. We all suffer when members of our society are treated poorly and we all benefit when mercy is shown, for all of us need mercy at some point and mercy is a healing transformative force that allows us to see things we would not see otherwise.
A common argument in favor of the death penalty is that some people deserve to die and some people don’t deserve to be shown mercy. Stevenson says mercy is most potent when it is directed at the undeserving and that the question is not whether people deserve to die but whether we deserve to kill.
The answer to the question of whether we deserve to kill is a resounding no. The answer to the question of whether I would recommend this book is a resounding yes.