Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
18/60 | Started 04.05.23 • Finished 04.14.23 | 4 stars
Told mainly through the story of unjustly convicted death row dweller Walter McMillian, Just Mercy compellingly presents some of the largest problems with our justice system. Stevenson relays his journey from young law student to powerful and compassionate stone-catcher.
“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,” she told me all the time.
We meet many of Stevenson's other clients along the way, interspersed through the drama of McMillian's case. A large majority of his cases dealt with wrongfully imprisoned individuals of color who were almost exclusively sentenced to death row in Alabama. But he later expands his work to minors prosecuted as adults, abolition of the death penalty in general, and life sentences for non-violent crimes.
I’d started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I’d grown fond of quoting Václav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that “hope” was the one thing that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination. Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather “an orientation of the spirit.” The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.
Stevenson's storytelling is masterful. He tackles the difficult topics of racial bias and mass incarceration of minors and non-violent criminals. He explores the concept of justice coinciding with mercy and compassion. It's what broken people deserve, at the very least. He brings humanity to people we only see as part of some news story somewhere.
Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.
I'd be interested to see a follow-up, as the statistics and stories in this book are now outdated (almost 10 years old). I'm curious whether all of his (and others') striving has gotten us anywhere. I would have liked to see a bit more balance between people who deserve the justice they get and those who don't get the mercy they deserve, but maybe that was outside the scope of the book. If you're at all troubled by the current state of the justice system, or don't see one at all, Stevenson's work is worth your time.