Bryan Stevenson was fresh out of Harvard Law School when he embraced—first in Georgia, then in Alabama—the mission of defending death row inmates and others facing undeserved or disproportionate prison sentences. An African American from a poor family in Delaware, Stevenson accepts as a starting point the maxim, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
In Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, he builds his case against the flaws of America’s judicial system by clustering his observations around the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who first drew community ire by having an affair with a married white woman. Subsequently, a drug dealer who associated with the same woman, in an attempt to lessen his own jail time, told authorities that McMillian had killed a local college girl. The dealer’s ever-changing testimony was transparently false from the outset, but eager to close the case, the authorities arrested McMillian for murder, a jury with only one black member convicted him and a judge sentenced him to death. In succeeding chapters, Stevenson describes his struggles to exonerate McMillian.
His primary adversaries are deep-seated racism, tough-on-crime politicians, ambitious prosecutors, by-the-book judges, incompetent for-hire “expert” witnesses, a Supreme Court more interested in judicial expediency than actual justice, the rise of the victims’ rights movement (which recognizes only the initial victims of crimes), the burgeoning private prison lobby and the “good Germans” among us who piously avert our eyes as we go about our daily business.
Although Stevenson writes in a calm, deliberate style, there are passages here so harrowing and outrage-provoking that sensitive readers may need to set the book aside periodically until they can clear their minds of the foul images it conjures up. Anyone animated by a modicum of fairness will recognize Just Mercy as a de facto call to arms.