I read Just Mercy with my book group, but I’ve been wanting to read it for quite a while. This is Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about how he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which struggles against racial injustice in the criminal justice system, and especially in the application of the death penalty. You might have heard about EJI in the news lately, with the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which memorializes the history of racial terror lynchings in the United States.
You’d have to be deliberately closing your eyes and ears not to know that our justice system has severe problems. The predominance of racial minorities in prison exposes racial bias so deep that it’s hard to know where to begin to reform it. DNA evidence exposes false convictions on a weekly basis. Sentencing guidelines from the war on drugs create an entire class of the poor, homeless, and disenfranchised. Where could one activist lawyer begin?
The narrative arc of Just Mercy is Stevenson’s work with one client, Walter McMillian, who was convicted — and, as Stevenson shows us, falsely convicted — of killing a white woman. At his sentencing, the judge, Robert E. Lee Key, went out of his way to convert his sentence from life in prison to the death penalty. In alternate chapters, Stevenson shows the long, slow process of appeal and investigation that gets McMillian off death row and makes him a free man. This process, while frequently frustrating, exhausting, and tense, is the good news.
In between those chapters, however, the news is not… so great. Stevenson works with the mentally ill, the disabled, the desperately poor, women who have been raped in prison and have babies there, inmates who are children themselves. The courts, including the US Supreme Court, consistently rule against these people, stripping them of even the most basic rights to counsel, to have their voices heard, to protection from their abusers, to being tried as children or to separate housing from adults. Reading about this kind of brutality, made far worse by open racism baked into institutions and overt in individuals, is painful, difficult, and necessary.
There isn’t much that’s personal about this memoir — Stevenson spends more time talking about his principles than his friends or his childhood or his tastes. But one reason that this memoir works is that Stevenson deeply believes that change is possible, even if it is only one human being at a time. He speaks about his own reasons for doing what he does: not because he thinks he can change the world, or even because he feels he has no choice, but because his brokenness — the ways he has been hurt, and hurt others — touches the brokenness in his clients, and makes wholeness in God’s mercy. And it is just mercy that makes any change at all possible, anywhere.
The power of this book is that it is about injustice, poverty, race, and human beings trapped and set free — Stevenson, his clients, and eventually you and me. I was so grateful to read it.