Just Mercy details the harsh beginnings of the Equal Justice Initiative, the premiere nonprofit organization providing post-conviction relief to many — women, children, men; those condemned to serve their lifetimes, to face execution — throughout the country. As a member of the criminal justice community, many told me I should read this book. Roaming the aisles of the Strand in New York, the cover caught my eye. A Story of Justice and Redemption.
Just Mercy reviews some of the first cases and biggest cases that Bryan Stevenson worked on throughout his career. Interwoven throughout many stories, Mr. Stevenson features the story of Walter McMillian, a man who wrongfully spent six years on death row for a homicide he did not commit. Walter’s story portrays the corruption, racism, and depravity of the criminal justice system in the South (other cases demonstrate that these problems rage on throughout the country). You can the New York times coverage of Walter’s release here.
Initially, I was a little hesitant to read this book. Not because of the subject-matter, but because I am a fiction reader and writer. I like stories that flow well, have a natural arch to them, resolve and leave you satisfied, both with good and bad endings (so to speak). A retelling of a man’s incredible career, while inspiring, didn’t seem to fill that need for me on the surface. But alas, as the saying goes – do not just a book by its cover.
Bryan Stevenson’s prose is incredible; there is really no other way to put it. His life’s work, while entirely non-fiction, reads like an insightful and beautiful piece of fiction. And maybe that’s the sad reality of criminal justice in this country. There are just so many harsh and heartbreaking features to it that it almost seems unreal.
Just Mercy is also informative. Mr. Stevenson sheds light on so many of the cases that I have heard about in school or seen in the news. Some may read this book with a cynical eye – he’s trying to “explain” away these people’s pasts or some may view that the book is self-congratulatory. Sometimes I do feel like Mr. Stevenson is explaining things an an elementary fashion, and as a lawyer, I found myself saying “that’s a little simplistic” or “that’s kind of pieced together.” But I also recognize that Mr. Stevenson is writing a book not just for those of us who are interested in these issues and do this kind of work. He’s trying to share it with everyone who will read – share about the horrors and heartbreak of death row, just like Walter McMillian wanted. There is nothing simple or pieced together about that.
This morning, on my morning commute, I finished reading Just Mercy. All day I have been left with this deep emotional attachment – something I haven’t felt after reading a book in a very long time. Ironically, the last time I felt this way was when I closed the cover on Lee Harper’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a subtle image that played throughout Mr. Stevenson’s Just Mercy. In concluding this review (which for those of you keeping score at home, an A- read), I’d like to leave you with this passage that I will forever remember:
“All of the sudden, I felt stronger. I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears . . .
When I was a college student, I had a job working as a musician in point in a black church in a poor section of West Philadelphia. At a certain point in the service I would play the organ before the choir began to sing. The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” I never fully appreciated what he was saying until the night Jimmy Dill was executed.”