(Image from Barnes & Noble)
In 1983, when he was a 23-year-old Harvard Law student, Bryan Stevenson took an intensive class which focused on race and poverty litigation. As part of the course, he began an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta. Working with the organization, which helps death row inmates, opened his eyes and changed his life. Embracing the principle Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done (17-18), Stevenson has since dedicated himself to fighting mistreatment in the criminal justice system, especially when it concerns those who are most vulnerable—minorities, the poor, the wrongly accused, women, children, etc.
In Just Mercy, Stevenson's first book, he recounts a situation he encountered early in his career. It was during his fourth year with the SPDC that the young lawyer became embroiled in a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird-esque case that would teach him truths so startling and profound he would never forget them. While visiting a prison in Alabama—a state that had a large incarcerated population and no public defender system, meaning many of its death row inmates had no legal representation at all—Stevenson met Walter McMillian, a middle-aged African-American man from, ironically enough, Monroe County, Alabama. Like the fictional Tom Robinson, McMillian was accused of harming a young white woman. In McMillian's case, it was a murder charge—Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old store clerk, had been shot during what appeared to be a robbery at her place of employment. While Morrison upheld an unblemished reputation, McMillian's was undeniably spotty. Though married, he was a notorious ladies' man (who had just ended a troublesome relationship with his white, married lover), who was also rumored to be part of the "Dixie mafia" and a drug dealer. Still, McMillian emphatically maintained his innocence in Morrison's killing. Although he had an alibi for the night the crime was committed, one verified by a dozen people, police pursued the matter, which eventually landed McMillian on death row.
The many inconsistencies in the case against Walter McMillian became apparent as soon as Stevenson began investigating it. Stunned by the prejudice and incompetence he uncovered, the attorney vowed to free McMillian from prison. Doing so would prove to be unimaginably difficult, steeped as the case was in racism, prejudice, conspiracy, lies, etc. It would also change the way Stevenson viewed mercy and justice—forever.
I hadn't heard of Bryan Stevenson or Walter McMillian before picking up Just Mercy. In fact, I knew nothing about the book until my husband randomly plucked the audio version of it from off a library shelf. After completing a road trip during which both he and his aunt listened, spellbound, to the story, my husband recommended I read it. I did. Like my husband and aunt-in-law, I found myself transfixed by Stevenson's account of defending McMillian. I've never thought the criminal justice system perfect, but reading about such obvious kinks in its workings definitely reminded me of its many flaws. Using McMillian's case as just one example, Stevenson makes some very convincing arguments about mercy, justice, and prison reform. While Just Mercy gets undeniably depressing, it's also inspiring. Eye-opening, jaw-dropping, heart-breaking, thought-provoking—all these adjectives describe the effect it had on me. You may not agree with Stevenson's findings, but you will no doubt find his book illuminating. I highly recommend it.
(Readalikes: While the books are not similar in tone or style, Just Mercy did remind me of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; also of A Time to Kill by John Grisham)
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), and disturbing themes, including rape, drug abuse, violence, child abuse, etc.
To the FTC, with love: I bought a copy of Just Mercy from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.