Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
I avoided reading Just Mercy, to some extent, because I knew it was going to be a painful book to read. And now I’ve avoided writing about it because I knew how hard that was going to be too.
And that’s for two reasons. The first is that I’m afraid anything I say won’t do it justice. The second is because it affected me so much that writing about it means walking through those emotions again. But it underscores how powerful the message is here, and how inarguably necessary it is. This is one of those books that I’m afraid is only read by people who already agree with its core message, and those that could use the education and perspective aren’t likely to bother picking it up. That’s a shame but it’s all the more reason I’ll recommend it to anyone who will listen.
Bryan Stevenson graduated Harvard Law School and wasn’t sure what to do next. He started working with southern law firms on death penalty cases, as a defense lawyer for people facing capital punishment. His job is to try to save them from that sentence. But as he delves deeper into the cases that landed the people profiled here on death row, he finds more and more examples of judicial misconduct, unfair trials, and severe punishments that far outstrip the crimes they’re meant to penalize. And then there’s the most disturbing element – some of the incarcerated are clearly innocent of the crimes they’re convicted of, and in some cases, face death for.
One statistic claims that for every 25 people executed, one is innocent of the crime they’re dying for. Accepting the death penalty asks us to accept that this level of error is its cost.
If you feel in any way on the fence about capital punishment, it would be hard to still have those views after this book. This is not who or what we are as a people. Killing someone as punishment isn’t justice and doesn’t bring the hoped-for peace. And it reprograms our empathy, it changes the people who carry out the executions, it permeates a cycle of violence and pain and helplessness and contributes nothing to solving the myriad underlying problems.
In addition to his detailed studies of the crimes, unjust trials, and why the convicted deserve mercy if not another shot at justice, Stevenson discusses the underlying conditions that brought us to this state in the first place. These include above all poverty, racism, the horrible history of lynch-mob justice, and the current judicial system that’s automatically stacked against anyone non-white and who doesn’t have the money to buy their way out of trouble with powerful counsel and high-paid experts.
Race is a huge factor in the majority of the cases Stevenson relates, with all the complications and complexities that accompany it particularly in the South. Reading this after The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, it’s absolutely maddening to consider the widespread judicial corruption rampant there.
Stevenson also includes the story of a white woman, wrongfully convicted for murdering her baby that she actually miscarried. She is, however, devastatingly poor, and at the time of her miscarriage and subsequent accusation and conviction, she and her family faced even more dire straits in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Poverty and society’s lack of interest in helping those who need it most is the common culprit.
And he highlights the disturbing truth that our society is much more likely to pour money and resources into prosecuting and punishing offenders than into social initiatives that could prevent them becoming offenders in the first place, or that could help address the issues and life circumstances that kept them in a cycle of criminality and poverty. For an example, see how one man, facing execution, was astounded and perplexed by the sudden humane treatment he’d never been the recipient of before:
“It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.” He looked at me, and his face twisted in confusion.
I gave Herbert one last long hug, but I was thinking about what he’d said. I thought of all the evidence that the court had never reviewed about his childhood. I was thinking about all of the trauma and difficulty that had followed him home from Vietnam. I couldn’t help but ask myself, Where were these people when he really needed them? Where were all of these helpful people when Herbert was three and his mother died? Where were they when he was seven and trying to recover from physical abuse? Where were they when he was a young teen struggling with drugs and alcohol? Where were they when he returned from Vietnam traumatized and disabled?
It’s easier to paint with a broad brush, to treat the symptoms with mass incarceration and execution than to enact the social initiatives and judicial responsibility to treat the causes. And it’s infinitely easier to imagine everyone on death row is guilty of what a court says they are without bothering to look closer at the glaring miscarriages of justice and an ocean-wide gap in equality.
Stevenson also emphasizes the plight of the people who are, as he puts it, sentenced to “death in prison”. One of the young men who received such a sentence, Joe Sullivan, was convicted of sexual battery at age thirteen. He didn’t even know what sex was. His mental development isn’t on par with his age. He’d admitted participating in a related burglary with two older boys, who seemingly returned to the house later and committed the assault. Evidence was destroyed and Joe received an excessively harsh sentence, especially considering he was a juvenile, and was sentenced to death in prison.
While imprisoned, he developed multiple sclerosis, exacerbated by the stress of incarceration and the abuses he suffered. He was confined to a wheelchair and severely disabled but still put through punishments and treatment that worsened his fragile condition, not to mention his mental state. And he’s innocent. We should be ashamed of our system for this. Thankfully, the law has since changed (and Sullivan is now free) and juveniles are no longer sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide offenses. When Stevenson first began communicating with him, Joe couldn’t understand why he was still jailed when he was innocent. I can’t put in words how much his story affected me.
In addition to being a compassionate, indefatigable attorney, Stevenson is a gifted writer. I thought the prose would be relatively straightforward but his writing is polished, eloquent, and gut-wrenchingly moving. The stories he tells, and the articulate way he tells them, is haunting. Even with so many statistics woven into the text, it’s never not readable. Every page hurts but the impact of what Stevenson and his legal team at the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama are doing is extraordinary.
It took me entirely too long to read this book. Don’t make the same mistake I did. It’s crucial.
Walter had taught me that 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. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And 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 until it was time to die on God’s schedule.
One of the cases Stevenson worked on and discusses here briefly (but in his remarkable way, still imparting so much) is that of Anthony Ray Hinton, sentenced to death but clearly innocent. Stevenson said the media he brought Hinton’s story to cited “innocence fatigue” – in other words, they’ve done those stories already and no one wants to hear it anymore. Hinton has since been freed, written his own book which sounds fantastic, and is a sought-after speaker. Innocence fatigue doesn’t exist except in the most cynical of minds. Bryan Stevenson and the people doing this work aren’t fatigued. We should never stop telling these stories and listening to what they’re trying to tell us.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson
published October 2014 by Spiegel & Grau