A Book Review of “Just Mercy; A Story of Justice and Redemption”
“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson is part memoir, part sociopolitical history of the male African American experience in the United States. Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., and law professor at New York University School of Law, Stevenson blends his own experiences as a young African American civil rights attorney getting his start with the experiences of the condemned men and prisoners he represented in the 1980s.
When Pat Brayer gave me this book shortly after a late October vacation he took in Fairhope, Ala., I was eager to read it. Young civil rights lawyer making his way? Count me in, I thought.
Stevenson opens his story recounting the first time he visited a death row inmate. A 23-year-old intern from Harvard Law, Stevenson went to Georgia’s death row to meet someone condemned to die. The experience marked him, and that’s where his story, along with the stories of his clients, begins.
As I read “Just Mercy,” I couldn’t help comparing Stevenson’s first experiences with the criminal justice system in the ‘80s with what I’ve seen over the past 16 months working for the Missouri State Public Defender System in St. Louis County. The tragic events in Ferguson were a daily conversation, whether it was at lunch in the office, with our clients or in chambers with a judge. Watching the drama with the St. Louis County grand jury unfold in real time feet away from our own office made Stevenson’s book that much more timely but also excruciatingly difficult to read with my own front row tickets to the criminal justice show. Reading became so onerous, I took a break from the book for a while.
But in late December, I picked up the book again and ate that whale one bite at a time. Stevenson artfully tells his own story while weaving in his clients’ tales. The theme throughout the book is consistent: the criminal justice system fails African American men—especially young ones — because America continues to fail them with harder- and harder-to-obtain opportunities, poverty, poor schooling and harsh punishment schemes.
Much of the story centers on Walter McMillian, a wrongfully convicted African American man from Monroeville, Ala, which incidentally is novelist Harper Lee’s hometown and To Kill a Mockingbird’s backdrop. McMillian found himself arrested, sent to sit in prison on Alabama’s death row before trial, tried, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Ronda Morrison.
Stevenson explores the reasons leading to McMillian’s conviction, as well as his own experience representing this condemned man during the postconviction phase of the case. Everything from McMillian’s reputation for business acumen in the African American community to his romantic relationship with one of Monroeville’s white women was used to secure a guilty verdict and death sentence after the day-and-a-half-long trial—not to mention the prosecution’s wild success at suppressing evidence from alibi witnesses who were able to place McMillian at a fish fry he hosted at his own house at the time of Morrison’s death.
Stevenson does a fantastic job of painting a portrait of McMillian, as well as the other people with whom he comes into contact during this time period. A stirring scene that comes to mind is when one prominent member of the African American community in Monroeville shows up to court in support of McMillian at a postconviction hearing only to panic and run out of the courtroom at the sight of police dogs supposedly helping maintain the order. Stevenson goes on to describe her visceral memories of having the dogs put on her when she bravely marched for voting rights in the late 1960s.
The irony of Monroeville’s apparent blindness to Harper Lee’s fictional account of a wrongfully convicted African American man wonderfully highlights the very real facts of McMillian’s own case, which included fabricated evidence, lying witnesses and judges and prosecutors bent on punishing someone without regard to his actual innocence.
All of that would be a total downer if Stevenson didn’t come back with an aha! moment: something we can take away as readers, new attorneys and seasoned practitioners. Getting to the point where McMillian was exonerated and freed was extremely satisfying but also gave me pause.
I can only speak for myself, but sometimes I get caught up in the day-to-day grind of dealing with this client’s bail or that client’s anxious mother, forgetting that working as a public defender within the criminal justice system means making sure the poor are treated as fairly and as well as the wealthy. Stevenson’s work over the past 30 years serves as a reminder that more motions and more trials might one day tip the balance in favor of those with the least access to our system.