Thursday, December 31, 2015

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Title:  Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Author:  Bryan Stevenson
Publication Information:  Spiegel and Grau. 2014. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0812994523 / 978-0812994520

Book Source:  I read this book based on hearing and reading about the book

Opening Sentence:  "I wasn't prepared to meet a condemned man."

Favorite Quote:  "... we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, we're also in a web of healing and mercy ... The power of mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It's when mercy is least expected that it's most potent - strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration."

Thought-provoking. Terrifying. Heartbreaking. This book is all of the above. All the more so for being about our nation today.

The author Bryan Stevenson has quite an impressive resume. Winner of MacArthur Genius Grant. A Harvard lawyer. Graduate of the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. Clinical Professor at New York University Law School. Named by Desmond Tutu as "America's young Nelson Mandela." Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. It is this last institution that is currently his life's work and the basis of this book.

This book begins with Mr. Stevenson road to and work with the Equal Justice Initiative whose mission is to "provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system."

This book speaks to the US justice system as a whole but takes on three main issues in depth:
  • Death penalty - "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."
  • Racial and social inequality in the dispensation of justice - "... the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can't be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice."
  • Treatment of juvenile offenders - "Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”
The book alternates between facts and statistics and the heartbreaking stories of individual cases. Mind you, the book does not put forth the innocence of all offenders. It is way more realistic. Some individuals are innocent and wrongfully prosecuted. Many are guilty of the offenses, but the question of their treatment through the system still warrants analysis.

Anchoring the book is the case of Walter McMillan, a black man. In 1986, an eighteen year old white woman named Ronda Morrison was killed. Walter McMillan was implicated even though numerous witnesses placed him as a family church fish fry at the time of the murder. In 1988, he was convicted after a capital murder trial that lasted only a day and a half. The jury recommended a life sentence; the judge overruled the jury and sentenced Walter McMillan to death. In 1991, the conviction and sentence was upheld. In 1993, based on Bryan Stevenson's work, the conviction was overturned and Walter McMillan was exonerated after six years on death row. He walked away a free man; however, the exoneration could not undo the damage of the wrongful prosecution. Walter McMillan would never truly be free.

This case is but one example cited in this book. Many other cases and instances are discussed, including one of Mr. Stevenson himself being suspected and held by the police outside his own home. The examples are indicative of an injustice that has existed and continues to exist today.

The examples, of course, are chosen and presented in a way to support the thesis of the book. They shock and elicit sympathy. The cases are told as stories - stories that create emotions. The stories anchor and make the facts memorable. Collectively, they writing style makes this book of very serious material very approachable and very readable.

The point is to begin and continue a conversation - a conversation that must take place leading to change that must come. The point is also to serve as a reminder that change can happen. Bryan Stevenson is one lawyer. The Equal Justice Institute is one organization. Yet, even the one brings about hope, reform and change.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment