Just Mercy

A Story of Justice and Redemption

By Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel & Grau. 352 pp. $28

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Reviewed by Marc Bookman


What exactly does Bryan Stevenson, legendary lawyer, winner of a MacArthur grant, and founder of Alabama's Equal Justice Initiative, mean by the title of his memoir Just Mercy?

There is no simple answer, and maybe no single answer, either. As Stevenson writes: "We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity."

In his beautifully written book, Stevenson chooses to embrace.

The vehicle he uses to tell the history of EJI, as well as his own personal struggle with the injustice that often passes for law and order in the South, is the case of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Ala.

The evidence against McMillian is improbable at best, but an almost all-white jury (a single black person ends up not struck by the prosecutor), aided by a witness whose perjured testimony is almost laughable, sends him to death row. As the case against McMillian falls apart after his conviction - it turns out he has more than a dozen alibi witnesses, and the two people who testify against him finally own up to their fraud - the prosecution fights harder and harder to uphold the jury's verdict and execute him. There's no need for a spoiler alert here - the real story is not how the case resolves itself, but rather how every twist and turn seems to traumatize those involved.

Along the way, Stevenson veers from the McMillian odyssey to delve into other areas of "brokenness" in our criminal justice system. EJI has led the way in opposing sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed by children.

The author spends considerable time detailing the injustices of such sentences, including the story of a Pennsylvania woman who has served 40 years for the unintentional killing of two people in a fire when she was 14. Along the way, she was raped by a prison guard and forced to give the resulting child over to foster care. She remains in custody today.

A 14-year-old boy from California received a sentence of life without parole for aggravated kidnapping, making him the youngest person in the United States condemned to die in prison for a crime in which no one was physically injured.

A third child, 13, is serving a life sentence without parole for an attempted homicide, even though his victim, now fully recovered, has petitioned the court for his release, but the courts ignore the victim's calls for a reduced sentence.

And then there's the issue of race, a cloud that hangs over every aspect of the criminal justice system. Just Mercy makes clear, in compelling and often heartbreaking detail, what every conscious criminal-law practitioner already knows - that race, and racial bias, permeates all aspects of our justice system.

This is hardly new. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a well-documented claim that the death penalty was imposed in a racially discriminatory way, in part because accepting the claim as true would open the door for widespread challenges to all aspects of criminal sentencing. That opinion prompted Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., in dissent, to remark that the majority appeared to be fearful of "too much justice." The same professor who completed the 1987 study, based in Georgia, found exactly the same results in Pennsylvania; the courts have similarly rejected those claims as well. But Stevenson adds a humanity to his telling, reminding the reader that misery, injustice, and real tragedy rest on top of the cold statistics. Sometimes you just want to scream at the page.

When reading a book about the justice system based almost entirely in the Deep South, there is a temptation to breathe a sigh of relief and be thankful that you live in the Northeast, where people don't go to death row based on preposterous proof, prosecutors don't cling to wrongful convictions in light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and children aren't sentenced to die in prison for their crimes.

But while the tales in Stevenson's brilliant chronicle are mostly regional, the experiences he shares are universal. There isn't a single one of them that couldn't have happened in Philadelphia.

Indeed, if you change the names, there isn't a single one of them that hasn't.

Marc Bookman is the director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a nonprofit death-penalty resource center based in Philadelphia.