84 pages 2 hours read

Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


Part memoir, part exhortation for much-needed reform to the American criminal justice system, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is a heartrending and inspirational call to arms written by the activist lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based organization responsible for freeing or reducing the sentences of scores of wrongfully convicted individuals. Stevenson’s memoir weaves together personal stories from his years as a lawyer with strong statements against racial and legal injustice, drawing a clear through line from Antebellum slavery and its legacy to today’s still-prejudiced criminal justice system.

Between the 1970s and 2014, when Stevenson’s memoir was published, the U.S. prison population increased from 300,000 to 2,300,000 – the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of those incarcerated, 58 percent identify as Black or Hispanic. The War on Drugs and “Tough on Crime” policing policies disproportionately target juveniles, women, people of color, the poor, and individuals with mental health issues, all too often the victims of inflated sentences and wrongful convictions resulting in the death penalty. Stevenson animates these harrowing statistics with stories from his years as a criminal defense lawyer, personalizing the political through a powerful series of cases.

The narrative backbone is the story of Walter McMillian, a young black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman in the small southern town where To Kill a Mockingbird is set. Chapters alternate between chronicling his trial, conviction, and the long road to justice and recounting the stories of other wrongfully persecuted individuals, including a 14-year old named Charlie who is sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing his mother’s abusive boyfriend. Taken as a whole, Just Mercy asks readers to consider the notion that the opposite of poverty is not wealth – it is justice.

By the start of the first chapter, “Mockingbird Players”, Stevenson is a member of the bar in both Georgia and Alabama, and has found himself defending McMillian for the murder of 18-year old Ronda Morrison. While there is no solid evidence pointing to McMillian as the murderer, false accusations, political machinations, and implicit bias against a black man known to be involved in an adulterous interracial relationship all add up to the accusation sticking.

The chapters that focus on cases outside of McMillian’s demonstrate the staggering legal injustices delivered upon marginalized populations and expose the larger, systemic causes and institutionalized prejudice at work in their uneven treatment.

Chapter 2, “Stand” details several incidents of police brutality and racial profiling, including an encounter Stevenson himself had while listening to music in front of his apartment late one night.

Chapter 4, “Old Rugged Cross”, describes the story of Vietnam War veteran Herbert Richardson, whose case illuminates the struggles Veterans often have in obtaining the medical and mental health support they need, while Chapter 6 (“Surely Doomed”) depicts how widespread legal injustice is for juveniles, many of whom are tried and convicted as adults and receive much harsher sentences than they deserve.

Chapter 8 introduces readers to Tracy, Ian, and Antonio, who continue Stevenson’s exploration of incarcerated children, in these cases for non-homicidal offenses. Through their stories, Stevenson exposes the truth about how children of color are often incarcerated or worse for the same acts white children engage in with impunity. At fourteen, Antonio Nunez became the youngest person in U.S. history to be condemned to death for a crime in which no one was physically injured.

Chapter 10, “Mitigation,” turns its critical lens on the poor and mentally ill prison population, who –though corrections officers are not properly trained to handle mental health issues – make up more than half of those currently incarcerated. The case-in-point in this chapter is Avery Jenkins, who committed murder during a psychotic episode. Through Stevenson’s interventions, he is ultimately moved to a mental health facility better equipped to care for him, one step closer to a society that chooses to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate.

Chapter 12 touches upon impoverished women imprisoned for infant mortality beyond their control, and welfare reform designed to persecute poor, single mothers, and Chapter 14 focuses on physically, cognitively, and behaviorally disabled children who end up imprisoned. Chapter 16 ends on a hopeful note, as on May 17, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that sentences of life imprisonment without parole imposed on children convicted of non-homicidal crimes was cruel and unusual punishment.

The chapters that trace the unfolding of Walter McMillian’s case build a narrative arc between the late 1980s, when McMillian was accused, and his eventual release in 1993. According to Stevenson’s account, the case involves countless missteps, including sentencing McMillian to the death penalty before his trial officially began, moving the trial proceedings to a wealthier, and thereby whiter, community, where McMillian was less likely to be judged by a jury of his peers, and ignoring several eyewitness accounts that definitively gave the defendant an alibi. Police misconduct (including a paid testimony), perjury, witnesses flipping, and rejected appeals to the state circuit courts also created setbacks. After less than three hours of deliberation, and despite his obvious innocence, the jury found McMillian guilty of the murder of Ronda Morrison and sentenced him to death.

Late-breaking assistance from the television show 60 Minutes raised awareness of the dubiousness of McMillian’s case, and convinced the Monroe County district attorney to bring in the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI). Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of McMillian, and after six years on death row, he was released and cleared of all charges. McMillian became a cause célèbre for criminal justice reform, resulting in the Equal Justice Initiative being selected for an International Human Rights Award.

Chapter 15, “Broken”, ends with an impassioned plea for a reevaluation of the ethics of capital punishment. By 1999, increasing media coverage of the high rate of wrongful convictions finally began to lessen reliance on the death penalty. In the closing chapter of Just Mercy, the lesson Stevenson impresses upon his readers is the urgent need to acknowledge the brokenness of society-wide indifference to the most vulnerable populations in America. Criminal justice reform must begin and end with mercy.