Just Mercy (Book Review)

Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson takes us through his journey as a young lawyer advocating for people on death row through his internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. Upon meeting people on death row he soon learns:

“Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own.”

Racial Justice

Continuing with the practice of proximity, Stevenson writes about developing the work of EJI over time to include broader advocacy for justice of the far underrepresented in the criminal justice system in America:

“The racial terrorism of lynching in many ways created the modern death penalty.

“America’s embrace of speedy executions was, in part, an attempt to redirect the violent energies of lynching while assuring white southerners that black men would still pay the price,” Stevenson writes. “Going into any prison is deeply confusing if you know anything about the racial demographics of America. The extreme overrepresentation of people of color, the disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, the targeted prosecution of drug crimes in poor communities, the criminalization of new immigrants and undocumented people, the collateral consequences of voter disenfranchisement, and the barriers to re-entry can only be fully understood through the lens of our racial history.”

In the Court decision of McClesky v. Kemp, empirical evidence was presented that race of a victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in the US.

Capital Punishment

Stevenson writes that in debates surrounding the death penalty, he had started arguing that

“We would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing would.”

Upon losing a stay of execution with one man’s case and being asked by the condemned man to witness it with him, Stevenson writes:

“Maybe I was imagining it but it seemed that everyone [at the prison] recognized what was taking place was wrong.

“Abstractions about capital punishment were one thing, but the details of systematically killing someone who is not a threat are completely different.”

Children in Prison For Life

Only a few countries permitted the death penalty for children, and the US was one of them until it was ruled unconstitutional in 2005. The US is also the only country in the world that sentences children convicted of crime to life in prison without parole. Of these sentences, they are disproportionately imposed on children of color.

“By 2010, Florida had sentence more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, several of whom were thirteen years old at the time of the crime. All of the youngest condemned children- thirteen or fourteen years of age- were black or Latino. Florida had the largest population in the world of children condemned to die in prison for non-homicides.”

The Wrongly Accused

While freeing a man who has wrongly accused of murder and placed on death row for six years, Stevenson states in court,

“Your Honor, I just want to say this before we adjourn.

“It was far too easy to convict this wrongly accused man for murder and send him to death row for something he didn’t do and much too hard to win his freedom after proving his innocence.

“We have serious problems and important work that must be done in this state [Alabama].”

In 1987 in Alabama, legislators had “aligned counties to maintain white majorities for judicial circuits that included a majority black county.” In addition, local jury commissions used requirements that jurors be “intelligent and upright” so as to exclude African Americans and women. In the 1970s underrepresentation of women and people of color on juries was ruled unconstitutional, however loopholes allowed jury selection procedures to go around this.

Mental Illness and Sexism

Concerning mental illness, Stevenson writes that today 50 percent of people in prison or jail are diagnosed with a mental illness. This rate is five times greater than the general population. Stevenson also speaks about a women he freed from life in prison who was charged with murdering her unborn baby, but really she just had a miscarriage.

“All five women on Alabama’s death row [at the time of the writing] were condemned for the unexplained deaths of their young children or the deaths of abusive spouses or boyfriends- all of them. In fact, nationwide, most women on death row are awaiting execution for a family crime involving an allegation of child abuse or domestic violence involving a male partner,” Stevenson writes.

Hope and Bravery

“Simply punishing the broken- walking away from them or hiding them from sight- only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too.

“There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity… There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.”

Through his work, Stevenson juggling with preparing families of the condemned and incarcerated for the worst while also helping them maintain hope.

“I’d grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that “hope” was the one thing that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the ear of Soviet domination… The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.”

Referring back to one of the main cases covered in the book- a man who served six years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Stevenson writes:

“Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational and dangerous.”

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