Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson
I should have read Just Mercy years ago, or at least closer to its 2014 publication date. Several people told me to, urged me to; but I put it off until this summer when I was in a bookstore in Boone, North Carolina, birthday shopping for and with my grandson Sam.
Better late than never!
Just Mercy is the account of lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s journey into the world of death row, in the South, with mostly black men. It is the sad and searing tale of injustice that pervades so much of this sordid practice of governments trying to kill people.
Stevenson grew up, a black boy in the black community, in Delaware. “The black people around me were strong and determined but marginalized and excluded.” But these experiences did not prepare him for what he found in the prisons and court houses of the South.
He learned these things, first, as a summer intern during his studies at Harvard Law School. Then, he learned them again when he moved to Montgomery and opened his own non-profit agency whose mission it is to help people get justice, mainly by just getting a lawyer!
Walter McMillian is the central character in this narrative. Other prisoners and people dance in and out of the story, including Bryan Stevenson himself—he tells it all from a first-person perspective. But Walter is the main man: poor, black, and innocent, but condemned to die as a result of a vast web of prejudice, deceit, ignorance, and willful perversion of justice.
Stevenson wins freedom and exoneration for Walter, but it takes a long time and lots of money. Powerful people conspire to keep him on the road to the chair—sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges—but people more determined fight back: family, friends, investigators, lawyers, and finally, a new judge.
This one narrative personalizes the modern campaign to exonerate people sitting on death row all around the country. Hundreds of wrongly charged and wrongly convicted people are being set free, mainly by the use of forensic evidence: DNA, mostly. It fuels the growing demand to completely outlaw the death penalty. Several states have done that already.
Stevenson is at the forefront of that effort, and his work has been recognized and honored by a wide range of religious and legal groups. He needs more acclaim, more money, more help just as our country needs more justice and more mercy.
There are two million people incarcerated in the United States, an additional six million people on probation or parole, and an estimated sixty-eight million Americans with criminal records: so Stevenson reports on page 319 of this powerful book. I know one of them—my son, who spent 93 months in maximum security federal prison, with a little state time on either side of that sentence. I know something about jail, and what I know I don’t like.
This book helped put into national perspective the little we know about the criminal justice system. And this book cast another beam of righteous light onto the history of racial wickedness that lies hidden at the heart of American economics, politics, and religion.
That light began shining in my dark work when I read God and the Ghetto, by the great Lexington-born and New York-bound preacher William Augustus Jones. Then came The Half Has Never Been Told, about the economics of slavery. And while I was reading these things, people died: Muhammad Ali, James Cone, Harper Lee, and Aretha Franklin; Obama was elected president, and I began listening to the American Spiritual Ensemble. All of it constituted an education and precipitated a conversion.
I give thanks to God and keep looking for other books to read, music to hear, leaders to meet, places to serve, and people to help. Help me Jesus.
Walter McMillian died on September 11, 2013.
Read this book. Don’t wait, like I did, five years.
Dwight A. Moody
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