On: Just Mercy
The book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson was an incredibly eye opening book about the unfairness of the justice system in the US, with the main focus being on the death penalty. I think everyone should read this book, especially if you’re doing anything that has to do with law enforcement, politics, social work, or just want to be an informed citizen. And it seems like other people agree with me, Just Mercy is one of the most popular common reading assignments at universities across the country. First of all, I didn’t even know schools did that, they certainly didn’t when I was in college! Also, let me go add the rest of those books to my wish list real quick.
I read this book with my Junior League of Wichita book club. As soon as I finished reading the introduction, I told my husband to download it to his Kindle so we could read it together and discuss. Now, two things are strange about that scenario: 1) my husband isn’t really a big reader, he’s more into watching football or The Walking Dead in his spare time, and 2) we are not some cultured couple who does stuff like this all the time. So you know there’s something special about this book.
Just Mercy is by Bryan Stevenson, who is a criminal defense attorney for inmates on death row, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit that provides free legal aid to those in need. I have the utmost respect for Stevenson. The book gave a glimpse into how rough it was for him to start in that field with very little funding, living in crappy apartments and driving all over the state of Alabama in a beat up old car which didn’t even have a radio that worked consistently. It also showed how he suffered from racial discrimination himself, being a young black man practicing law in the eighties, often being mistaken for the client he is there to defend.
The book goes in depth about the case of Walter McMillian, a man who was sentenced to death for a murder he very clearly did not commit, it reminded me a bit of the show “Making a Murderer.” Law enforcement and prosecutors overlooked obvious signs of innocence and appeared to go as far as falsifying evidence and bribing others to implicate him on the stand.
Interspersed in the book were stories of other people Stevenson has worked with, grouping similar cases together in each chapter. Some of the hardest for me to read were about children (“Only a handful of countries permitted the death penalty for children – and the US was one of them,” and “The US is the only country in the world that imposes life imprisonment without parole sentences on children,” which “violates international law”), mothers (he told the story of a woman who had a stillborn baby, but hadn’t gone to a hospital and authorities didn’t believe she was stillborn, so the mother was convicted of murdering her baby), and the mentally ill (“America’s prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill.” “Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness”).
The quote that stood out to me the most was in the introduction, when the director of the first nonprofit he worked for told him “Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.'” The book made me see that the purpose of the US prison system isn’t to reform criminals, it’s a place for us to put people we deem “less than.” It’s a way for politicians to make a point, to show that they’re tough on crime. And if you have enough money to hire even a halfway decent lawyer, or if you’re white and lucky, you can actually get a fair shake.
Our book club met to discuss Just Mercy this Monday, and it was my favorite meeting we’ve had. We actually talked about the book the entire time (instead of just 20 minutes between socializing and talking about the other books we’re reading like we usually do, though that’s fun, too) and had a really great discussion. The best part was hearing everyone’s different points of view and experiences that they could relate back to the book. We had several lawyers in the group, some women had husbands or friends in law enforcement, and one was even a nurse at a local prison who was able to share some amazing insight.
This book seriously opened my eyes and made me realize how broken our justice and prison system really is. I mean, I thought things were bad in Orange is the New Black, but several of the situations he described were much, much worse, and I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Criminal Justice Reform is a major topic in the news lately, crossing party lines and involving people of all races and socioeconomic classes. Reading this book makes me think about what I can do to help people in these situations. It doesn’t seem like a whole lot, I can spread the word, donate to causes such as EJI, and volunteer my time to those in need. It’s enough for now, and every little bit adds up.