This is a Review: Just Mercy, by Bryan StevensonDecember 18, 2014
You know how I predicted that this book would swallow me whole once I finally settled down to read it? I was absolutely right. I cracked Just Mercy open at page 20 on Sunday and devoured the 300+ pages in the space of about two and a half days. I was a few pages from the end on Tuesday evening when I remarked to my boyfriend, "I'm going to be really glad when this is over, because it's making me depressed."
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice. (Goodreads)
Ugh, yes, I said "depressed" when I should have said "sad." Minus one for Shaina. But it was true—I'd been struggling with anxiety and the blues since coming home from Thanksgiving, and I realized that this book, important as it was, was not doing me any favors in that department. I know, woe is me for being down while reading the devastating stories of dozens of individuals failed by the justice system, in situations I will almost certainly never have to worry about finding myself in simply due to the color of my skin. But, well, it is sad. It's demoralizing. It's wrong, and Stevenson really, really wants us to walk away from his book understanding how awful it gets.
Stevenson talks race; he talks class; he talks mental illness and disability. He tells us about children who were incarcerated for life in their teens (and some even younger), despite the fact that research shows that adolescents' brains are merely works in progress. A unifying thread in all these stories is the prosecution's complete unwillingness to admit fault, even in the face of undisclosed evidence, bribed witnesses and illegally-selected juries. This is not just a problem among legal counsel—the public has similar trouble changing its mind about people condemned to life imprisonment or death, even in the face of undeniable innocence. Stevenson becomes especially emotional about this when recalling the night of the execution Jimmy Dill, an intellectually disabled man with childhood trauma who was wrongly accused of capital murder:
"We're supposed to sentence people fairly after fully considering their life circumstances, but instead we exploit the inability of the poor to get the legal assistance we need—all so we can kill them with less resistance."Despite this, Stevenson thinks there's reason to be hopeful. He and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative have won landmark rulings, including bans of life imprisonment without parole for children convicted of both homicide and non-homicide crimes. He doesn't offer us a solution to the prejudice and discrimination that pervade the justice system, but he's determined to keep fighting it regardless.
I would recommend this book for anyone looking for a closer, more intimate look at our prison system and the people who inhabit it. As often happens with books like this, the most likely people to pick it up are those who are already interested in social ills and justice, and so the contents may be less shocking and more additional, disheartening examples of a system the reader is already well aware is broken. Still, whether you know nothing about the subject or are fairly well-versed, Just Mercy is absolutely worth your time.