Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Image of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Release Date: 
August 17, 2015
Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by: 

“This is not a must-read for those involved in the criminal justice system or those interested in criminal justice reform. Just Mercy is a must-read for every American.”

Merriam-Webster defines justice as "the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited awards or punishment . . . the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action." Impartiality is considered freedom from bias, and is synonymous with equality. Therefore, in matters involving crime, justice—by definition—requires an equal and impartial assignment of punishment.

The American crime and punishment system does not qualify as justice under this definition. Instead, the criminal justice complex is defined by inequality, unfairness and a lack of humanity. The failure of this system is the subject of award-winning advocate, professor and attorney Bryan Stevenson's moving and infuriating book, Just Mercy. In about 300 pages, Stevenson exposes the failure of justice in America. He asks a question that would not need to be asked in a just system: How and why are people judged unfairly?

Consider the state of the American criminal justice system:

“We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we've sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years we've been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.

“Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. We've created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a costly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than a half-million people in state or federal prison for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980.

“We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like ‘Three Strikes and You're Out’ to communicate our toughness. We've given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. We've institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’—identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives. . . .

“We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed. Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.”

Professor Stevenson knows all of this at an intimate level. He is the founder and executive director of the world-renowned Equal Justice Initiative. He has advocated for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court, and represented mistreated and forgotten prisoners of every kind, including juveniles, women, and the mentally ill. Just Mercy is an indictment of America's failing criminal justice system, presented through the stories of Stevenson's clients.

Walter McMillian's story is a central thread throughout the book, and it reads like a John Grisham novel. A black man wrongfully convicted of murdering a white woman in Alabama in the late 1980s, he spent years on death row before Stevenson was able to secure his release.

The evidence against McMillian was virtually nonexistent. One witness statement was obtained after the witness was threatened with the death penalty—and actually placed on death row for some time. Prosecutors and investigators knew that the witness statement was created out of whole cloth, because the witness continually told them that he was making it all up.

What happened to McMillian is infuriating on many levels. The most troubling part, however, is how improperly investigators and prosecutors acted. They intentionally withheld evidence and lied repeatedly, all in an effort to ensure the state-sanctioned murder of Walter McMillian. How can this happen?

Stevenson answers this question by citing two concepts that have utterly poisoned the American criminal justice system: fear and anger. "[F]ear and anger are a threat to justice . . . [that] can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational and dangerous," writes Stevenson.

Fear and anger don't just lead to wrongful convictions, either. They alter the way that we deal with the vulnerable, like children who commit crimes. Fourteen-year-old Charlie was prosecuted as an adult after shooting his mother's abusive boyfriend. He was raped repeatedly by the adult men he was housed with.

Trina, who was given a life without parole sentence at 14, was raped by a guard in an adult prison, where she gave birth to the guard's child.

And 13-year-old Joe Sullivan, who was wrongfully convicted of rape and spent decades in prison, was horribly mistreated due to his age and his mental and intellectual disabilities.

While Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have represented many powerless defendants who were innocent but run over by the criminal justice system anyway, Just Mercy is not solely a book about the scourge of wrongful convictions.

Many of Stevenson's clients have been guilty, some of committing heinous crimes. But even in the worst case, Stevenson describes discovering "deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions." In his work, Stevenson learned a "basic and humbling truth":

Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done.

Mercy is the cure for a broken and fear-driven criminal justice system. "[W]e've legalized vengeful and cruel punishments . . . [and] allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others," says Stevenson. Mercy is sufficient to stop the anger and revenge-fueled cycle of victimization that drives the criminal justice system. It is a powerfully curative tonic.

"The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving," writes Stevenson. "It's when mercy is least expected that it's most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration."

Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy is one of the most powerful and inspiring books that I have ever read. This is not a must-read for those involved in the criminal justice system or those interested in criminal justice reform. Just Mercy is a must-read for every American. Thank God for people like Bryan Stevenson.