Just Mercy


Bryan Stevenson




Date Reviewed:

August 5, 2017

y aunt recommended Just Mercy to me. I almost wished she hadn't, even though it is a great read. The cover promises "A story of justice and redemption", but I found it depressing - is this really America? I suppose I am naive, but I didn't realize that such systemic injustice and racism still existed. Didn't the Civil Rights act fix anything? Is our justice system so awfully prejudiced? Apparently it is in Alabama.

Just Mercy tells the story of Walter McMillian, a black man living in Monroeville Alabama. An eighteen year old white woman is murdered, and the Alabama authorities arrest McMillian, and put him on trial (but first they put him on death row - before his trial! - to try an scare him into confessing. But McMillan adamantly insists he is innocent.) Poor McMillian can't afford a lawyer, so he is given an incompetent public defender, and the all white jury condemns him to life in prison based upon the testimony of two witnesses - both of whom were pressured by the prosecutors to give their false testimony. In Alabama, the judge is allowed to override the sentence of the jury, so the judge changes McMillian's punishment to be death.

Bryan Stevenson (the author of Just Mercy), grew up poor, but managed to attend Eastern College, and then got into Harvard Law School. After graduating, Stevenson could have selected from many lucrative job offers, but he decided to do a few years of community service, and headed down to Georgia where he worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights, before moving to Alabama and founding the Equal Justice Initiative. He has been there ever since. In Alabama, Stevenson learns of the incredible miscarriage of justice in the McMillian case and works tirelessly to free him. At the time of the murder, McMillian was attending a big party with plenty of eyewitnesses - and the prosecutors knew this was true! But McMillian, a black man, had been having an affair with a white woman (not the girl who was killed), and so the sheriff wanted to ruin McMillian's life (which he certainly did).

Even after the truth about the witnesses being coerced into their false testimony comes out, even after the witnesses at the party (whom McMillian's defense lawyer never talked to) proved McMillian was innocent, the authorities in Alabama will not admit that they "made a mistake" and it takes years to finally get McMillian free. It is hard to read this stuff - these are evil men, and this is a true story.

One of the sad ironies of this whole case is that Monroeville, where McMillian lived, was the home of Harper Lee, the famous author of To Kill A Mockingbird. Monroeville honors their most famous resident, and yet completely ignores the point of To Kill A Mockingbird, in which a white man defends a falsely accused black man. To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, and it was a ground breaking novel - a white man defending a black man? I read it in high school, and I don't remember it having a powerful effect on me. Just Mercy seems more profound to me - this is not fiction, it really happened, and it happened right here in post-Civil Rights America. Ever since 1990, the citizens of Monroeville have staged a play of To Kill A Mockingbird, yet they remain blind to the racism in their very midst.

Stevenson is a great writer. He shows the injustice in the system, how the poor are mistreated, how prosecutors force innocent people into jail so that they can "look tough" when it comes time for their re-election. Read this book and you will convinced that our justice system must be fixed. But it will depress you to learn just how bad it is currently broken. I highly recommend this book.