“How can people be so mean?” That is the thought that kept coming to me as I read of black and poor people being condemned to death by all-white juries who considered their guilt a forgone conclusion. My question was rhetorical, as in “Oh my God, how can people be so mean?” But it is a good question. The way the author asks it is, “Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right?” Just Mercy gives us many examples to contemplate.
Bryan Stevenson is the founder of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit law firm that represents poor people on death row in the South, especially in Alabama. These are people who may or may not have been guilty of the crimes for which they were indicted, whose legal representation was poor if existent, and for whom the evidence in their favor was often not allowed in court.
Just Mercy describes many cases EJI tried with or without success. Alternating chapters are dedicated to one case, that of Walter McMillian, who was tried for the murder of the daughter of a prominent white couple. McMillian had strong alibis—he was at a family picnic far from the crime scene and many unrelated individuals stopped by and saw him—but the police were being criticized for not finding the perpetrator, and McMillian, who had had an adulterous affair with a white woman, was their answer.
Just Mercy takes us through many similar legal procedures in which the most blatant acts of injustice occurred. Between the chapters on the McMillian case are others that explore cases in which EJI defended young teens on death row or sentenced to life without parole, mentally ill prisoners, and women who had delivered stillborn babies and then were charged with capital murder.
Stevenson has argued a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He describes how the Court upheld death penalties for juveniles and people with mental disabilities, and how it found no constitutional violation in the extreme racial disparities in the use of death penalties. He ultimately had a major success in 2012, however, when the Court banned all life-without-parole sentences imposed on children.
In spite of bomb threats to EFI’s office and threats against the lives of supportive witnesses, Stevenson and his colleagues got over 100 people off death row and sometimes freed. Walter McMillian was ultimately released from prison, but his six years on death row caused devastating health problems. Yet he retained his sense of humor and his humanity.
Acts of kindness allowed Stevenson to keep going when he became discouraged. He describes a white couple whose grandson had committed suicide. They took an interest in one of EJI’s clients, a 14-year-old boy who had killed his mother’s violent boyfriend who had just beaten his mother unconscious. This couple helped the boy get his GED in prison and paid for his college education once he was released. Stevenson also writes of an elderly black woman whose beloved grandson had been murdered. She attended court every day just to comfort those who needed a gentle word, a sweet hug, or someone to lean on. Reading about these people, I found myself in tears.
So why do we want to kill all the broken people? One day Stevenson sat in his office knowing that at that moment one of his clients was being executed; exhausted, he felt that he could not do this work any longer. Then it occurred to him that he did it because he knew he was broken too. He saw that condemning people is a way of putting ourselves above those we condemn, of denying our own imperfections. We all have done things we regret, and recognizing our need for mercy connects us. Stevenson recalls a time when he was shown mercy. He said he “didn’t deserve reconciliation or love . . . but that’s how mercy works.” It can “break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.”
Thus, Stevenson found renewed energy for his work. If you read this book, your heart will break. And you will find renewed energy to work for justice.