Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014)
It has been a while since I’ve heard or read about a life so impressive as Bryan Stevenson’s, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. His chosen line of work, or calling, is to defend the poor and imprisoned, individuals sentenced on death row, condemned children, the mentally ill—those who can not otherwise defend themselves.
Just Mercy is a memoir and social commentary that will sadden and madden its readers, but also will inspire hope and compassion, all to the author’s credit. Its main thesis convincingly establishes that the poor and minorities become the recipients of excessive punishments in the justice system, disproportionately, not necessarily because they are the guiltiest, but because they are defenseless and seemingly inconsequential. As a nation, we are largely oblivious to this inequity, because “injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different than ourselves,” wrote Nicholas Kristof in his review of the book. Stevenson is that Good Samaritan who does not pass by.
The story of Walter McMillian forms the backbone of the book. McMillian spent 6 years on death row due to a series of false witnesses and systematic disregard of credible evidence that he was innocent. He was wrongly convicted of a murder of a white woman, a convenient scapegoat, becuase his public reputation was already tarnished due to an affair with another white woman. McMillian was black, and this was Alabama in the 80’s.
Stevenson’s tireless efforts in McMillian’s defense helped free him in 1993, but freedom couldn’t erase the trauma of being in death row nor promised him life as before. He parted ways with his family, even though they loved and supported him, as the social and emotional costs of being associated with him became too much to bear. The rest of his life was a struggle, with Stevenson being one of his only close friends until he passed away in 2013.
McMillian and Stevenson’s many other clients become Stevenson’s arguments that reveal flaws in the justice system. Children tried and convicted as adults, ending up in adult prisons and suffering sexual and physical abuse; women inmates raped by prison guards, especially those who are mentally ill, and ignored; young people spending years or decades of their lives in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day. There is also a lack of infrastructure to rehabilitate the imprisoned to re-integrate into society… Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, are determined to fix these things towards a better society.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Stevenson’s voice narrating his own audiobook. This first-person account has had quite an effect on me, and I’ve come to find him as a beacon of compassion. The amount of sympathy this man has toward those whom we largely overlook is admirable. He believes that we are all “better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” and the bravery he shows to persevere in his lifework is a symmetric reflection of his belief. I feel privileged to have spent a few days with this memoir and to get to know its worthy author.
“Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.” Bryan Stevenson
Watch his TED talk here:
Originally published here.