“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
As a young law student, Bryan Stevenson was somewhat adrift at Harvard Law School, unsure of his direction or his future. He wanted to do something that would help people, but he was having trouble connecting his theoretical education with meaningful action. Then, an internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led to work helping inmates on death row in the Deep South. Most of these prisoners were indigent, and could not afford legal counsel to help review or appeal their cases. The experience made a profound impression, and led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in 1994. Stevenson would go on to appeal countless death sentences, and challenge the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Just Mercy recounts his experiences representing people who have been written off by society.
The main case threaded through Just Mercy is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted in 1988 of the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, and sentenced to death in Alabama. Stevenson’s association with the case began with a call from the original trial judge, who got wind that Stevenson had been looking into McMillian, and called to try to scare him off of representing him. Stevenson took the case anyway, and the result is an investigation that seems like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning.
Just Mercy draws interesting parallels to one of American’s most beloved classic novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama, home to author Harper Lee. The town continued to publicize and celebrate the work, even as a wrongful conviction took place in their midst. While To Kill a Mockingbird lionizes Atticus Finch for his defence of Tom Robinson, Stevenson encountered repeated obstruction from the community, and even received death and bomb threats for his defence of McMillian. The irony is not lost on Stevenson, who also notes the unhappy ending for the accused in Lee’s novel.
Walter McMillian in the main thread running through the book, appearing in every second chapter, but his is not the only story. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem. The alternating chapters even serve to provide some sense of suspense in McMillian’s case, despite the fact that the outcome was widely publicized and is therefore probably generally known to readers.
Beyond specific cases, Just Mercy also serves to highlight the how short legal services are for the poor, and the lack of re-entry programs for exonerated prisoners. Every time Stevenson took on a new case, other prisoners would hear about his work and seek his help, creating an impossible case load. Once, in a case where Stevenson was representing a veteran who suffered from PTSD, and injured two children by setting off a bomb, the victims’ families asked for Stevenson’s assistance seeking financial aid they had been promised but never received. They sought his help even though he was representing the man who had caused the injuries in the first place.
Even when prisoners get help and are able to win their release, they face problems reintegrating into society. Someone who is convicted of murder and then later found to be innocent remains ineligible for services that exclude people who have been convicted of felonies. Originally setting out to provide legal help, Stevenson subsequently found himself also doing social work, providing assistance and support to those he had helped set free. Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.
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