Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is a powerful exploration of injustice within our legal system. A mixture of memoir and case history, the book’s main plot follows Stevenson, a public interest lawyer, as he seeks to exonerate Walter McMillan, a black man falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Walter’s story is interwoven with Stevenson’s founding of the Equal Justice Initiative and the narratives of countless others who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Everyone concerned about our criminal justice system, everyone trying to understand the intersections of race, gender, and poverty, and everyone with a pulse should read this book.
Just Mercy is deeply humanist in its outlook, in the best sense of the word. Prisoners are not presented in the abstract. They have hopes and sorrows. They have regrets. They sing hymns. They have favorite foods. They are frightened of death. They pray. They weep.
I’ll only mention a few of the many heart-wrenching scenes portrayed in the book.
Fourteen-year-old Charlie was arrested for shooting his mother’s abusive boyfriend in the head while he lay in a drunken stupor after beating Charlie’s mother unconscious. Stevenson recounts meeting Charlie in jail afterwards and trying unsuccessfully to get him to speak. After many attempts, the boy suddenly breaks down sobbing and trembling uncontrollably, but not about the murder. He says: “There were three men who hurt me on the first night. They touched me and made me do things... They came back the next night and hurt me a lot… There were so many last night. I don’t know how many there were, but they hurt me” (p. 123-124). This 100-lb child who had not yet been convicted of a crime was locked for days in a cell with men who raped him.
In another scene, a Vietnam Vet who was convicted of murder waits to be executed. Moments before the guards take him away, he tells Stevenson: “It’s been a very strange day, Bryan, really Strange. All day long people have been asking me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ When I woke up this morning, they kept coming to me, ‘Can we get you some breakfast?’ At midday they came to me, ‘Can we get you some lunch?’ … it’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last 14 hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up” (p. 89).
None of the stories Stevenson tells are meant to exculpate genuine offenders, but rather are meant to humanize them, to bring to light the reality of imprisonment. An execution is not just a court document locked in a filing cabinet. It is a wife wailing as her husband is being dragged away to the electric chair. It is the smell of burning flesh wafting down death row. It is a cell block full of prisoners banging their cups in protest and cringing in terror. Those of us who are pro-life (like me) are adamant that people need to grapple with the reality of abortion in pictures, videos, and personal testimonies. But in the same way, those of us who tentatively support capital punishment (like me) need to grapple with the reality of execution. Principles and arguments are indispensable and, at the end of the day, our reason -not our emotion- has to guide our actions. But we need to take an unflinching look at reality, not hide from it.
Even more troubling than the stories of prisoners are the acts of injustice that incarcerated them. Because Stevenson is a defense attorney and because we’re only hearing one side of an intentionally adversarial and two-sided legal process, it might be reasonable to withhold judgment until the facts are completely known. Conservatives especially will be inclined to err on the side of “trusting the system.” Yet, in many cases, the system itself has acknowledged that egregious acts of injustice have been perpetrated against innocent people.
For example, Walter McMillan sat on death row for six years for a crime he did not commit. The arresting officers pressured witnesses into making false statements, and the district attorney was found to have concealed evidence. The EJI website lists 166 cases of exonerations of death-row inmates since 1973. Police or prosecutor misconduct was present in 79% of homicide exonerations.
Even apart from exonerations, injustice can occur at the level of prisoner treatment. Stevenson’s book is filled with cases of the rape and sexual assault of incarcerated prisoners. For example, the EJI started investigating the notorious Tutweiler women’s prison in Alabama after working with Marsha Colbey, a woman who was wrongly imprisoned for ten years on charges of murdering her newborn. A 2014 Justice Department investigation concluded that “Tutwiler subjects its women prisoners to a pattern and practice of sexual abuse in violation the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Again, these are not matters on which anyone -regardless of their stance on criminal justice issues- should disagree. Innocent people should not be executed. Inmates should not be raped. Righting these wrongs is not a liberal or conservative issue; it’s a human rights issue.
One of the most notable features of Stevenson’s book is his lack of bitterness. He doesn’t call down curses on a corrupt system; he works to change it. Even in the face of horrific evil, he looks for and often finds strands of hope and redemption.
Charlie, the 14-year-old boy who killed his mother’s abuser, had his case transferred to a juvenile court. A few months later, Stevenson mentioned Charlie during one of his talks at a church. “Afterward, an older married couple approached me and insisted that they had to help Charlie… Their one and only grandchild, whom they had helped raise, had committed suicide when he was a teenager and they had never stopped grieving for him… they wanted to use the money they’d saved for their grandson to help Charlie… The Jenningses helped Charlie get his general equivalency degree in detention and insisted on financing his college education. They were there, along with his mother, to take him home when he was released” (p. 125-126).
While visiting Avery Jenkins, a mentally-ill black man incarcerated for murder, Stevenson encountered a racist guard who harassed him, strip-searched him, and subjected him to various forms of intimidation. The guard accompanied Jenkins to his trial, where Stevenson recounted the horrific physical and sexual abuse that Jenkins had undergone as a child. Returning later to the prison, Stevenson encountered the same racist guard and prepared for more abuse. But instead, the guard was deferential, polite, and “actually looked nervous” (p. 200). He pulled Stevenson aside, and softly said:
“You know I took ole Avery to court for his hearing and was down there with y’all for those three days. And I, uh, well, I want you to know that I was listening… I-uh, well, I appreciate what you’re doing. I really do… I came up in foster care, too… listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse. I mean, it brought back a lot of memories… You know, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s good what you’re doing.”
“I think we can always do better,” Stevenson replied. “The bad things that happen to us don’t define us… I really appreciate you saying to me what you just said…. Sometimes I forget how we all need mitigation.” (p. 201)
While Stevenson doesn’t talk explicitly about his Christian faith, it shines through at several points in the book, when he speaks at churches, reflects on old hymns, or prays with his clients. But nowhere is it more evident than in his foundational belief in redemption: no one is beyond hope and all of us need mitigation.
Because Just Mercy is not primarily about public policy, I’ll make only two comments on this subject.
First, Christians historically have supported the death penalty and have (I think, rightly) viewed it as an affirmation of the value of human life. The principle of “life for life” is a testimony to the inestimable value of human life; fines or time in prison cannot repay the debt which murder incurs. (For a thought-provoking defense of the retributive theory of justice, see this video based on C.S. Lewis’ classic essay.)
However, the discussion must not end there. Even conservatives like myself who accept a biblical case for the capital punishment should recognize that if significant numbers of innocent people are being executed or if justice is being perverted through favoritism towards the rich or racism towards blacks, then even if it’s permissible in theory to apply capital punishment, it may not be permissible in practice. No system of human justice will ever be perfect, but we dare not treat the punishment of the innocent as if it were a trivial matter.
Second, I can’t help but wonder how these stories would sound if they were told from the victim’s perspective, rather than the perpetrator’s. For example, Herbert Richardson, the Vietnam vet who dazedly commented on the kindness of his guards, murdered a little girl who triggered the bomb Richardson intended to frighten his ex-girlfriend. Avery Jenkins, the mentally-ill inmate with a horrific history of foster care abuse, was incarcerated because he “brutally stabbed to death a man he’d believed to be a demon” (p. 197). George Daniel was found entering strangers’ homes and killed a police officer while resisting arrest. How would these stories sound if they focused on the heartbroken parents crying out for the daughter they lost or the children of the police officer murdered in the line of duty?
The tension between the victim’s and perpetrator’s perspectives is certainly one that Stevenson recognizes. Near the end of the book he talks about how his own eighty-six-year-old grandfather was stabbed to death by several teens who wanted his black-and-white television: “We all kept saying and thinking the same thing: they didn’t have to kill him” (p. 267).
And this is precisely why we have to be cautious with stories. In a broken world, both perpetrator and victim are broken by crime and tragedy. It is here that we have to realize that emotion can’t be our only guide. We have to face potentially grim tradeoffs.
For instance, more than half of the state prison population is incarcerated for violent crimes. If we relax sentencing or parole requirements, how much recidivism is tolerable for the sake of reducing mass incarceration? How many murders or rapes by former inmates should we deem acceptable? That question sounds shocking, but it is a reality that we can’t ignore, and I say that as someone who is very sympathetic to sentencing and prison reform. I don’t have answers; I’m only saying that we must be willing to ask hard questions.
A Guilty World
It’s hard to do this book justice in a short review. I can only earnestly commend it to every reader. It will prompt reflection, discussion, grief, empathy, and a greater appreciation for the darkness all around us.
So many of the stories Stevenson tells are tragedies from start to finish: broken homes, broken marriages, broken lives, crime, death, and despair fill its pages. In light of such pain, Christians especially should be motivated to create laws and institutions that reflect God’s justice and mercy. The local church has an especially important role to play in serving the incarcerated, ministering to their needs, and helping them to reintegrate into society after their release.
Yet even if we do our utmost to fight for a just society and to love our neighbor, our works can never staunch the world’s gaping wounds. Human justice will always be incomplete. Worse still, the brokenness of the world is only a symptom. The world is not just filled with victims; it is also filled with victimizers. Only God can bring perfect justice, but perfect justice would condemn us all. Then how can anyone be saved? What hope is there for us?
The only answer is the gospel. The gospel explains how a good, just God can look at a world filled with unjust people and forgive. On the cross, Jesus took our just punishment so that we could have God’s mercy. On the cross, Jesus bore our guilt so that we could have his innocence. It is in this “Old Rugged Cross” that many of the men and women in Stevenson’s book found hope. There we can find hope too.
- The Gospel as Apologetic
- The Gospel According to Sheryl Crow
- Why Should We Believe that Christianity is True?
- A Long Review of Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock