“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”
Author: Bryan Stevenson
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)
I am embarrassed to say I am just now reading Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” but I am really glad I’ve read it. Every American should read this book.
This is a remarkable, enlightening and disturbing book. Most disturbing perhaps because it is enlightening and tells us information about our criminal justice system we should already have known about and been outraged by.
The heart of this book is the story of Walter McMillian of Monroe County, Alabama. In 1986, Stevenson, in his late twenties, working at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta, gets a call from Monroeville, from Judge Robert E. Lee Key, warning him off the McMillian case before he has even met with McMillian. Judge Key tells Stevenson that McMillian, arrested for murder and sodomy, is a major drug dealer, possibly a member of the Dixie Mafia, whatever that is. McMillian is not indigent, Judge Key says, and may have money buried all over Monroe County.
Stevenson drives to Alabama, not, as would be expected, to the Monroe County jail but to Holman Prison. The authorities have, most unusually, put McMillian, before his trial, on death row. There, alone in his 5 x 8 cell, for 23 hours a day, among convicted murderers, for years, he watches as one by one they are taken away for execution and, it is said, can smell the burned flesh produced by the electric chair.
The murder back in Monroe County was almost certainly not committed by McMillian. He was far away, in public, at the time, with many witnesses. The testimony against him was palpably false and, it seems, most everyone knew it.
But McMillian, a successful black small businessman, had an adulterous relationship with a white woman. The community pressure to solve the crime was powerful, and district attorneys and judges in Alabama are elected. Their chances are better if they can be shown to be really “tough on crime.”
Although one was vaguely aware of it, in Alabama in 2016, when this book was published, judges could overturn jury decisions in capital cases.
Since 1976, judges have done this 111 times. “In 91 percent of these cases, judges replaced life verdicts from juries with death sentences.”
The sentences imposed by a jury of the defendant’s peers were not harsh enough for these judges.
It took Stevenson six years to get Walter McMillian out. This was of course a triumph but not without great cost to McMillian. Life in Holman is not just waiting; the effects of life on death row are profound. Prisoners are inevitably damaged, both psychologically and physically. In McMillian’s case, he developed dementia, probably trauma-induced.
Of course, “Just Mercy” covers a lot besides this one case.
We learn how the criminal justice system was and still is, in many respects, a catalog of horrors. There are incompetent, overworked defense attorneys and overzealous prosecutors.
Stevenson reminds us that in some places, minors, under 18 and as young as 14, have been tried as adults and put in adult incarceration where they were often abused and raped. Children under 18 were sentenced to death, sometimes for crimes in which no deaths had occurred. In 2016, 3,000 juveniles were in prison, sentenced to life.
Scientists tell us now that the human brain is not fully formed by 18. Who did not know that already?
The war on drugs, the three strikes laws, minimum sentencing, tougher parole regulations: much of this is now being reconsidered, and all of it has generated mass incarceration and frantic prison-building, using up millions of taxpayer dollars that could be used for public health or education.
And, Stevenson argues, each of us is more than the deeds of our worst day. A little mercy and compassion would be in order. Rehabilitation must not be discarded as a possibility. And life without parole, life in prison, might be better called death in prison, since that is where the convict will be on the day he or she dies.
There are lots of statistics here, but the narrative is personal.
One incident Stevenson narrates is chilling and educational.
Having just returned to his apartment in Midtown Atlanta after a trip to Gadsden, Stevenson has a “driveway moment,” listening to music on the radio. A police car pulls up, blue lights flashing. Two officers dressed “military style, black boots with black pants and vests” walk up to Stevenson. One draws his weapon and shouts “Move and I’ll blow your head off.” Stevenson, a grown man and an attorney, tries to reason with the officer. They shout. They shove him. They illegally open and search his glove compartment.
Throughout, Stevenson remains calm, repeating “It’s okay. It’s okay.” When nothing illegal is found and they ascertain there are no warrants out for his arrest they leave, grinning, and telling him “We’re going to let you go You should be happy.”
When a similar incident happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Dr. Henry Louis Gates, on Gates’ front porch, he finally got a meeting and a beer with the policeman and President Obama on the White House lawn.
Even after filing an official complain, it was months before Stevenson got any kind of apology. More upsetting than his own experience, however, are some of the implications.
His first momentary instinct was to run—and he was a grown man and a lawyer. What might a frightened teenage boy have done?
The pain is palpable.
Stevenson has a graceful, conversational, storytelling style. No review can do this book justice. Each citizen must read it for himself.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.