Sunday, July 15, 2018

Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014)

I first heard of Bryan Stevenson back in 2014 when I read the book No Choirboy, a teen book about teens on death row. Stevenson is an attorney who was mentioned in the book because he's an advocate for people treated unfairly by the justice system. He also appears in the documentary 13th, which is about racial inequality in the U.S. justice system. I've admired him ever since I heard of his work, and recently I finally made a point to read his book.

Stevenson's passion for justice is clear and unwavering and he has spent his entire career helping those who need it the most. He started the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides representation for prisoners who were wrongly convicted or didn't receive a fair trial. We learn about many of these case in the book, and they are all horrifying.

The story focused on the most is that of Walter McMillian, a black man convicted of murder and sentenced to death. At the time of the murder he was at a fish fry with many friends and family, but their testimony was completely disregarded and he was convicted on the basis of one witness who was obviously lying, but he was white and everyone wanted to convict someone for this terrible murder. It was obvious to Stevenson that McMillian's trial had been a farce, but even so it took quite a while to get McMillian set free.

Other stories are equally as horrifying. A 14-year-old girl accidentally started a fire in which two people died and was sentence to life without parole. An intellectually disabled woman was charged with killing her baby and, facing a capital charge, took a plea for life in prison - but there was no baby. She had never even been pregnant. A 13-year-old boy shot a woman (she lived) and was sentence to life without parole. He was sent to an adult prison and because such young prisoners are often targets for abuse, he was put in solitary confinement and kept there for 18 years.

Although Stevenson won some of his cases, he didn't win them all. He wrote about one death row inmate he wasn't able to save. He visited the man on the last night of his life and then witnessed his execution. He reflected:

"In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn't implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would. I couldn't stop thinking that we don't spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves."

I learned about so many terrible things from this book. Black defendants having all-white juries at their trials, and racist jurors not being excluded. That by 2010 the state of Florida had sentenced over 100 kids to life without parole. Kids! That between 1990 and 2005 a new prison opened in the United States every 10 days. That the drugs used for lethal injection had been banned for animal euthanasia because they caused a painful and tortuous death, which led to correctional authorities obtaining them illegally for executions.

I knew that our justice system was flawed. I've read The New Jim Crow. But reading this...I felt like it's more than flawed. It's completely broken and useless. Why hasn't there been a huge outcry? Why hasn't it been fixed? Do other people who work in the system not care? Thank goodness for people like Bryan Stevenson and the other attorneys at his organization who are trying to fix the horrible injustices that have been allowed to take place.

It was very hard to read, especially in the current political climate in which the current administration seems determined to undo the social progress we've made. But I also think it's very important to read - Americans need to understand that this is happening. I know there's a strong movement against mass incarceration and towards prison reform, and I only hope it can result and real and lasting change.

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