Book Review: Bryan Stevenson on Alabama Justice

March 13, 2015
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Just_MercyBryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2014).

Recent police killings of unarmed black men and teens in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio have sparked a national conversation about racial bias within the criminal justice system. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, offers a powerful and urgent addition to that conversation, one that should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the ways in which the legal system mistreats and discards black and poor people in the United States.

Just Mercy paints a damning picture of the changes that began in American society in the 1980s that led the United States to become one of the most punitive nations on earth. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with the number of people in prison increasing from 300,000 in the 1970s to 2.3 million today. This legal system puts people to death without providing adequate legal counsel, tolerates blatantly unfair prosecutions, until recently locked up children for life for crimes that they committed as young as the age of 13, and has largely abandoned the idea that those who commit crimes can be rehabilitated.


Just Mercy paints a damning picture of the changes that began in American society in the 1980s that led the United States to become one of the most punitive nations on earth.


Stevenson, who grew up poor in an all-black community in rural Delaware, has made it his life’s work to help the most vulnerable in this system, poor death row inmates who need legal counsel. In 1989, as a young graduate of Harvard Law, Stevenson helped found the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative to assist death row prisoners in Alabama, a state that has no public defender system for prisoners on death row and that allows judges to override a jury ruling to impose the death penalty on their own. During his career, Stevenson and his organization have helped secure the release of hundreds of prisoners from death row, have exonerated several innocent men who were wrongfully convicted, and have successfully argued before the Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life imprisonment without parole.


Stevenson’s struggle to get McMillian exonerated makes for both gripping and painful reading.


Stevenson describes learning early on from his grandmother that “you can’t understand most of the important things from a distance…You have to get close,” and he brings his readers in close to better understand mass incarceration and extreme punishment in the United States. Much of the book tells the story of Walter McMillian, a successful black business owner from Monroeville, Alabama who in the 1980s was convicted of a murder he did not commit by local law enforcement eager to punish him for having an affair with a white woman. Stevenson’s struggle to get McMillian exonerated makes for both gripping and painful reading. Despite evidence that proves beyond a doubt that McMillan could not have committed the murder, that the police paid witnesses to testify against him, and that the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence at the trial, the state for years has resisted reopening the case and instead threatens those who offer evidence of McMillian’s innocence. Stevenson eventually gets McMillian’s sentence invalidated, although he outlines the many additional barriers to securing any compensation from the state for the wrongful conviction and years McMillian spent on death row.

Interspersed between chapters on the struggle to free McMillian, Stevenson introduces many others who have been victimized by the criminal justice system. There are those who are executed despite suffering from serious mental illness, those who a court sentenced to death without taking into account any mitigating factors such as childhood abuse or trauma, children sent to prison for life for crimes that they did mean to commit or were forced to participate in, and poor women imprisoned for murder because their children were stillborn. These people were then further damaged and traumatized in prison when they were raped by other prisoners or by guards, subjected to solitary confinement, or denied treatment for mental illness. It is a sobering picture of a justice system that takes advantage of the inability of the poor, and especially of blacks, to “get the legal assistance they need—all so we can kill them with less resistance.”


If everyone could admit and recognize that they are broken in some way, Stevenson argues, we could move beyond the fear and anger that drive America’s zeal for punishment to recognize our common humanity.


As bleak a picture as Stevenson paints of the American criminal justice system, he also insists on the power of hope and the possibility of redemption. He points to the compassion and generosity of those who have been its victims—like Walter McMillian’s ability to forgive those who framed him for a crime he did not commit—as evidence of our potential to be merciful and of our capacity to be better than the worst things we have suffered or that we have done. If everyone could admit and recognize that they are broken in some way, Stevenson argues, we could move beyond the fear and anger that drive America’s zeal for punishment to recognize our common humanity. Just Mercy is a powerful rebuke to a nation that takes “pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable,” and its urgent message demands a wide audience.

Renee Romano is Professor of History, Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. Her most recent book is Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders (Harvard).

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