June 27, 2015
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
By Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau, 2014.
Unfairness in the Justice system is a major theme of our age. DNA analysis exposes false convictions, it seems, on a weekly basis. The predominance of racial minorities in jails and prisons suggests systemic bias. Sentencing guidelines born of the war on drugs look increasingly draconian. Studies cast doubt on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Even the states that still kill people appear to have forgotten how; lately executions have been botched to horrific effect.
This news reaches citizens in articles and television spots about mistreated individuals. But “Just Mercy,” a memoir, aggregates and personalizes the struggle against injustice in the story of one activist lawyer.
Bryan Stevenson grew up poor in Delaware. His great-grandparents had been slaves in Virginia. His grandfather was murdered in a Philadelphia housing project when Stevenson was a teenager. Stevenson attended Eastern College (now Eastern University), a Christian institution outside Philadelphia, and then Harvard Law School. Afterward he began representing poor clients in the South, first in Georgia and then in Alabama, where he was a co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“Just Mercy” focuses mainly on that work, and those clients. Its narrative backbone is the story of Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson began representing in the late 1980s when he was on death row for killing a young white woman in Monroeville, Ala., the hometown of Harper Lee. Monroeville has long promoted its connection to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is about a black man falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. As Stevenson writes, “Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root.” Walter McMillian had never heard of the book, and had scarcely been in trouble with the law. He had, however, been having an affair with a white woman, and Stevenson makes a persuasive case that it made McMillian, who cut timber for a living, vulnerable to prosecution.
McMillian’s ordeal is a good subject for Stevenson, first of all because it was so outrageous. The reader quickly comes to root for McMillian as authorities gin up a case against him, ignore the many eyewitnesses who were with him at a church fund-raiser at his home when the murder took place, and send him — before trial — to death row in the state pen. When the almost entirely white jury returns a sentence of life in prison, the judge, named Robert E. Lee Key, takes it upon himself to convert it to the death penalty.
Stevenson’s is not the first telling of this miscarriage of justice: “60 Minutes” did a segment on it, and the journalist Pete Earley wrote a book about the case, “Circumstantial Evidence” (1995). McMillian’s release in 1993 made the front page of The New York Times. But this book brings new life to the story by placing it in two affecting contexts: Stevenson’s life’s work and the deep strain of racial injustice in American life. McMillian’s was a foundational case for the author, both professionally and personally; the exoneration burnished his reputation. A strength of this account is that instead of the Hollywood moment of people cheering and champagne popping when the court finally frees McMillian, Stevenson admits he was “confused by my suddenly simmering anger.” He found himself thinking of how much pain had been visited on McMillian and his family and community, and about others wrongly convicted who hadn’t received the death penalty and thus were less likely to attract the attention of activist lawyers.
Stevenson uses McMillian’s case to illustrate his commitment both to individual defendants — he remained closely in touch until McMillian’s death last year — and to endemic problems in American jurisprudence. The more success Stevenson has fighting his hopeless causes, the more support he attracts. Soon he has won a MacArthur “genius” grant, Sweden’s Olof Palme prize and other awards and distinctions, and is attracting enough federal and foundation support to field a whole staff. By the second half of the book, they are taking on mandatory life sentences for children (now abolished) and broader measures to encourage Americans to recognize the legacy of slavery in today’s criminal justice system.
As I read this book I kept thinking of Paul Farmer, the physician who has devoted his life to improving health care for the world’s poor, notably Haitians. The men are roughly contemporaries, both have won MacArthur grants, both have a Christian bent and Harvard connections, Stevenson even quotes Farmer — who, it turns out, sits on the board of the Equal Justice Initiative. Farmer’s commitment to the poor was captured in Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (and Kidder’s advance praise adorns the back cover of “Just Mercy”).
A difference, and one that worried me at first, is that Farmer was fortunate enough to have Kidder as his Boswell, relieving him of the awkward task of extolling his own good deeds. Stevenson, writing his own book, walks a tricky line when it comes to showing how good can triumph in the world, without making himself look solely responsible.
Luckily, you don’t have to read too long to start cheering for this man. Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court. And, as it happens, the book extols not his nobility but that of the cause, and reads like a call to action for all that remains to be done.
“Just Mercy” has its quirks, though. Many stories it recounts are more than 30 years old but are retold as though they happened yesterday. Dialogue is reconstituted; scenes are conjured from memory; characters’ thoughts are channeled à la true crime writers: McMillian, being driven back to death row, “was feeling something that could only be described as rage . . . ‘Loose these chains. Loose these chains.’ He couldn’t remember when he’d last lost control, but he felt himself falling apart.” Stevenson leaves out identifying years, perhaps to avoid the impression that some of this happened long ago. He also has the defense lawyer’s reflex of refusing to acknowledge his clients’ darker motives. A teenager convicted of a double murder by arson is relieved of agency; a man who placed a bomb on his estranged girlfriend’s porch, inadvertently killing her niece, “had a big heart.”
For a memoir, “Just Mercy” also contains little that is intimate. Who has this man cared deeply about, apart from his mother and his clients among the dispossessed? It’s hard to say. Almost everything we learn about his personal life seems to illustrate the larger struggle for social justice. (An exception: a scene where he is sitting in his car, spending a few minutes alone listening to Sly and the Family Stone on the radio. “In just over three years of law practice I had become one of those people for whom such small events could make a big difference in my joy quotient.”)
But there’s plenty about his worldview. As Stevenson says in a TED talk, “We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.” This way of thinking is in line with other pronouncements he makes throughout: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” They are like phrases from sermons, exhortations to righteous action. “The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”
The message of this book, hammered home by dramatic examples of one man’s refusal to sit quietly and countenance horror, is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made. “Just Mercy” will make you upset and it will make you hopeful. The day I finished it, I happened to read in a newspaper that one in 10 people exonerated of crimes in recent years had pleaded guilty at trial. The justice system had them over a log, and copping a plea had been their only hope. Bryan Stevenson has been angry about this for years, and we are all the better for it.