As a gifted young attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School, Bryan Stephenson could have taken a job with a prestigious law firm. But after completing a summer internship with an organization representing convicted prisoners on death row while still in school, he discovered his life's calling. With grit and determination, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative and dedicated his life to representing the poor, the wrongly convicted, and those whom society had largely forgotten. One of his first and most memorable cases was that of Walter McMillian who had been sentenced to death for a murder he didn't commit. Despite having to wade through a web of lies and political conspiracies, Mr. Stephenson eventually got to the truth and was able to successfully argue for his client to be exonerated, but it didn't come without personal risks. He details Mr. McMillian's case while interspersing it with the narratives of other cases he handled over the years, including a few that he took all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, winning landmark decisions for incarcerated minors. Along the way, he learned that justice requires mercy in order to be truly just.
Just Mercy is the story of author and civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson's journey to starting the non-profit organization, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). There he fights for the rights of wrongfully incarcerated individuals, those who've received sentences that were too harsh, and people (particularly prisoners on death row) who lack legal representation. Throughout the course of the book, he details one of the biggest cases of his career, that of a man who was wrongly convicted of a murder he didn't commit and the six year struggle to finally get him exonerated. Wedged in between the chapters of this longer narrative are the stories of many other people Mr. Stevenson and his organization were able to assist, which include some cases that he was able to take all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court and win judgments that changed the course of many prisoners' lives. This book stirred numerous emotions within me while reading it and riveted me to its pages, making it difficult to put down, both of which are qualities that I don't always find in non-fiction but which made it an excellent read.
The bulk of the narrative tells the story of Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville, Alabama, a town whose claim to fame is being the home of Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. McMillian had been liked by most people who knew him and was known as a hard worker, but he had a bit of a reputation as a ladies' man despite being married. At some point, it came out that he'd had an affair with an also-married local white woman. Not long after that, an eighteen-year-old white girl was killed in broad daylight at the dry cleaners where she was employed, but the sheriff was unable to solve the case. Months went by until a white man who'd also had an affair with the same woman Mr. McMillian did was arrested for an unrelated crime. He had a reputation for telling wild stories to get attention, and mentioned that he might have information about the young girl's murder. From there, things ballooned out of control, ending with the sheriff, the DA, and other law enforcement officials strong-arming him into testifying against Mr. McMillian. They also essentially bribed another man, who was a known snitch, to give false testimony that he'd seen Mr. McMillian's truck outside the cleaners in exchange for dropping other charges against him. Despite the incredibly flimsy evidence presented by the prosecutor at trial and the fact that numerous friends and relatives of Mr. McMillian had been with him at the time of the murder, he was still convicted and sentenced to death. If I'm remembering correctly, it was about two years later that Mr. Stevenson became aware of the case and started representing Mr. McMillian in trying to either get his conviction overturned or get him a new trial, and it took him four years and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears before he was finally successful. It's a tale that's equal parts moving because of all the emotions involved and infuriating because of the appalling miscarriage of justice that occurred.
However, Mr. McMillan's case was not the only one in which justice definitely was not served. The author recounts numerous other cases he represented over the years, which were equally anger-inducing. There were people who were either mentally ill or mentally deficient whose cases should have been treated differently due to these mitigating circumstances. There were a number of minors, including some who were only thirteen or fourteen, if not younger, when they were convicted of committing crimes and yet they were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Some of these kids (who were usually adults by the time their files landed on Mr. Stevenson's desk) were innocent, while others were perhaps guilty but had terrible upbringings filled with horrific abuse and neglect that sent them down a dark path. But the one thing that many of them had in common is that they were given these harsh sentences for non-homicidal crimes and the majority of them were black or brown. Then there was the story of a poor woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for giving birth to a stillborn child and sent to a women' prison with an abhorrent track record of overcrowding and abuse of the female prisoners by male guards. The author worked tirelessly to free her, while also trying to enact reforms at the prison. There are also stories of heartbreaking instances where he failed to convince judges to give relief to death row inmates, and their executions went forward anyway in spite of circumstances which were worthy of taking a closer look.
Just Mercy was a phenomenal book that was eloquently written and took me on an engaging journey right along with the author as he fought the good fight for true justice and equality. It also took me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions while educating me about what's really going on behind the scenes in the American justice system. I've been aware for some time now of how biases against minorities and the poor frequently play a role in the convictions of those accused of committing crimes, as well as the sentencing once that conviction is handed down, but this book still opened my eyes to just how prevalent these things are. It has even inspired me to consider the possibility of getting involved in criminal justice reform or prison reform work. I was heartbroken and even moved to tears by many of the stories the author relates, while also being outraged at how broken our justice system can be. I can't praise Mr. Stevenson and EJI enough for their compassion for prisoners and for giving a voice to many who were previously voiceless. I also can't recommend this book highly enough. I think it might be the best one I've read so far in 2020, and I'm eagerly looking forward to watching the movie, Just Mercy, which was based on this story.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook