“Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done”.
Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” is a powerful read: It infuriates, it gives hope, it takes it away, it frustrates, and it ultimately inspires. And central to the book – ostensibly a broad critique of mass incarceration and extreme punishment in the county; after all, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world – is the story of his defence of Walter McMillian, a black man sentenced to death for a murder he insisted he did not commit. As details of his incrimination unfold there is also the expectation of his exoneration (especially if the reader – like I did – is prompted early on to read about McMillian’s case upon the first mention), yet not only is it one of the cases which has a happier ending, it also puts into perspective the agony of his family and his community, who had to go through seven years without the knowledge of certainty.
As Stevenson alternates between McMillian’s trials and tribulations and the other cases he and his Equal Justice Initiative have taken on, the vignettes appear to be representative examples of broader, systemic problems which plague the systems of law and justice in the United States, that of: Botched or inhumane executions; constitutional and legal inconsistencies; the miscarriage of justice, as a result – in part – of racial discrimination and inequality, the history of segregation, and the prison-industrial complex; prosecutorial misconduct and egregious jury selection; juveniles and child offenders, persons with mental illnesses, and mothers will stillborn babies, often sentenced to life imprisonment without parole); and that of American socio-economic challenges (of poverty and family issues, which brings to mind J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”).
And through these expositions, moreover, Stevenson reveals little details about his own life and family, about growing up poor in the racially segregated South, and I especially enjoyed both the little turning points in his history – the college internship, when he was held at gunpoint, and his memories of his mother and grandmother – and interactions or conversations he has with other individuals entwined in the system. Even in the face of hostility, indignity, and prejudice, the lawyer’s moral courage, strength, and dignity never wavered (though he can be emotionally stretched, prompting the reader to tear and to grieve with him), and in some instances Stevenson secured little victories, changing mindsets and winning cases, thereby speaking to the potential for cumulative change.
Through this remarkable lawyer we get a better understanding of the cases and the lives of those whom he has defended, and in this vein – too – a better understanding of their unfortunate circumstances. More thought should then be given to the disproportionate punishments meted out, and the extent to which systemic issues must be dealt him. In other words, “Just Mercy” is a timely call to action, not to discount what defendants might have done (the “worst thing” they have done), but to look past that, perhaps also to our collective culpability, of apathy and of inaction. “A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important that culpability”, Stevenson wrote, towards the very end, “must be changed”. And instead of focusing on whether “people deserve to die for the crimes they commit”, “the real question of capital punishment in this country is, “Do we deserve to kill?”.