Bryan Stevenson is the founder of Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who represents those who have been wrongly accused of crimes and those who have been given sentences that far exceed their crimes. While Just Mercy spans Stevenson’s entire career in law, the primary focus is on Walter McMillian, a man who was put on death row for a murder he did not commit.
Walter McMillian was found guilty of murder in the same Alabama county where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was an African-American man who was accused of the murder of a white woman. His accuser was a white man who was trying to strike a deal with local law enforcement to escape punishment for his own crimes by “solving” a recent murder that outraged the small town. To the man’s surprise and eventual alarm, local law enforcement immediately latched on to his story about McMillian, even though Walter McMillian had dozens of alibis on the day of the murder. The story grew more fantastical and more “witnesses” were pulled into the scam, aided by local law enforcement who knew they had the wrong man, but wished to be seen by the public as being “tough on crime.”
When Stevenson became involved in the McMillian case, Walter was already on death row. Stevenson was shocked at the flimsiness of the evidence he had been convicted on, as well as by the evidence that had been suppressed. In Monroe County, he learned that those most proud of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird were those quickest to deny that Walter McMillian was their town’s black scapegoat. Stevenson sought to reveal the cover ups and corruption that defined the case, and before long, he was receiving bomb threats at the office.
I loved this book, though it is definitely not an easy read. I connected with Stevenson and his clients and the reading experience was very emotional for me. This was a book that was surprising and not surprising all at the same time. Going in, I knew the death sentence often reflects the prisoner’s ability to afford decent legal counsel more than it affects the seriousness of the crime. I knew that people executed for crimes are sometimes discovered to be innocent when it is too late. I knew the link between race and severity of sentencing. I knew women prisoners are vulnerable to rape by prison guards and that many have given birth while chained to prison beds.
What this book did was make that all personal with stories rather than statistics. And it did at times shock me. I was surprised at the severity of punishment for child offenders. I was surprised by the stories of poor women wrongly accused of murder after delivering stillborn babies. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how recently courts were able to exclude all minorities from juries, but I was surprised.
This is an eye-opening book, and I do recommend it. What I do not recommend is reading it in public. This is not a restaurant book, a Starbucks book, an airplane book, or a train book. Because it will make you cry. And when you cry, it will weird out the person stuck in the middle seat of your airplane row. Consider yourself warned.
FCC Notice: I bought my copy.
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