Book Review: JUST MERCY, by Bryan Stevenson

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This book is worth reading by nearly everyone. My adult son sent me two copies telling me to give one to the town’s library (and I did.)

Stevenson is an attorney with an almost unique specialty: prisoners sentenced to death or to life without parole, who don’t belong there. Some had had no competent legal counsel at their trial, some were accused by lying witnesses whom the jury chose to believe; for some, the police had an unsolved murder and were under intense public pressure to find someone to accuse, some were racially profiled. For whatever reason, these are real people who can only look forward to spending the rest of their life in prison.

Each chapter features people imprisoned in a certain circumstance – a child tried as an adult, for instance, or someone mentally disabled, or corrupt local authority – and most chapters will update the ongoing difficulties of one particular prisoner, Walter McMillian, a black Alabama small-town businessman who faces all the above and more, as Stevenson struggles to fend off successive dates for his death in Alabama’s electric chair.

Gradually, Stevenson and his organization, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), gain a reputation for listening, advising, and action, among his clients’ fellow prisoners and their families. He has argued cases five times in the US Supreme Court, and taught as a professor at New York University Law School. He has also become chronically fatigued and sleepless, as he drives or flies hundreds of miles between small-town courts to meet trial dates over a widening area of practice.

Mr. Stevenson’s own personality is equally intriguing. A black attorney setting up a private practice in deep-south USA? Why, and how does he cope? For one thing, most of his clients, white or colored and often in solitary confinement, welcome human contact from the outside world. Second, he is tactful, willing to accept his client’s attitude, or even that of a hostile judge.

He writes, “Once I was preparing to do a hearing in a trial court in the Midwest and was sitting at counsel table in an empty courtroom before the hearing. I was wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie. The Judge and prosecutor entered through a door in the back of the courtroom laughing about something.

When the judge saw me sitting at the defense table he said to me harshly, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be in here without counsel. Go back outside and wait in the hallway until your lawyer arrives.’

“I stood up and smiled broadly. I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry Your Honor, we haven’t met. My name is Bryan Stevenson, I am the lawyer on the case set for hearing this morning.’

“The judged laughed at his mistake,and the prosecutor joined in. I forced myself to laugh because I didn’t want my young client, a white child who had been prosecuted as an adult, to be disadvantaged by a conflict I had created with the judge before the hearing. But I was disheartened by the experience.”

Even when he loses a case, he doesn’t abandon his client. Herbert Richardson was a Vietnam veteran who had made a time bomb which a young girl had found, not knowing what it was. When she shook it, it exploded and killed her instantly. He was convicted of first degree murder, even though there had been no intent to kill her. Just prior to his last hour, he and Stevenson were talking. “It’s been a strange last day,” Herbert said. “More people have asked how they can help me in this last fourteen hours of life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.”

“ I gave Herbert one last long hug, but I couldn’t help but ask myself, Where were all these helpful prople when he was three and his mother died? Where were they when he was seven and trying to recover from physical abuse? Where were they when he was a young teen struggling with drugs and alcohol? Where were they when he returned from Vietnam traumatized and disabled?”

Bryan Stevenson concludes his book with the observation that all of us are broken. “I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness and as a result deny our own humanity.”

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