I want to give a very many thanks to Kerry for taking the plunge and suggesting Just Mercy as the first book in her and Shannon’s Social Justice Book Club idea. I’m really looking forward to this being a continuing thing.
I’ve been against the death penalty for a long time – ever since I read Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and learned about the inequality in how it’s applied, the times the justice system get it wrong and convict innocent people, and how high the cost is to execute someone. So that being said, Just Mercy didn’t have to convince me of anything but it was worth the read anyways.
Bryan Stevenson did a great job with this book in that it focuses so much on the cases he’s worked on. While telling the story of how he got into law and eventually started the Equal Justice Initiative, he goes into the specifics of so many horrible, disturbing cases and the people he’s tried to help – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. A large part of the book is dedicated to Walter McMillian – a black man wrongly accused of murder in Alabama in the 1980’s. He was found guilty after a trial that lasted less than two days and the judge gave him a death sentence. He was on death row for six years, until Stevenson’s hard work finally paid off. In 1993 Walter McMillian was cleared of all charges and released. The details of Walter’s case are horrifying – the false accusation, the lack of evidence, the bribery and coercion by the police and prosecutors, the fact that witnesses and evidence supporting McMillian’s alibi were ignored, and the complete refusal of the local and state governments to admit any possible wrong-doing, until Stevenson finally broke through and won him a new trial. Outside of Walter, Stevenson also discusses cases in which women were sentenced to death row for giving birth to stillborn babies, in which children were sentenced to die in prison for non-violent crimes, in which people were wrongly convicted after having almost no legal defense – it’s staggering.
Even more concerning is that people wrongly accused and imprisoned aren’t guaranteed any sort of support or compensation – no matter the length of time they were imprisoned or the impact that a wrongful conviction has on their lives. It’s disturbing that lawyers, judges, officers, (basically every facet of the government) are protected from any sort of consequence, even if it’s discovered that they purposely withheld evidence, mistreated the accused, bribed and schemed to get an innocent person convicted, etc. We desperately need reforms.
If a person is already pro-capital punishment, I don’t know that this book will change their mind (or if they’d even agree to read it). But I think this is probably a great book for someone who won’t acknowledge that our legal system is tremendously flawed. I can’t imagine reading these examples of inequality and ineptness at every level and still walking away thinking that we do a decent job. Our criminal justice system is a failure. There is no denying that.
Personally, I’m really glad I read this. And I really like the work that Bryan Stevenson does – the Equal Justice Initiative is still a nonprofit organization and I approve of the work that they’re continuing to do for children, POC, the poor, and death row inmates. I’ll be really interested to see if they will tackle mass incarceration in any sort of major legal case with the Supreme Court.
I noticed on the EJI website that there’s a list of ways to get involved and one of the suggestions was to “start a social justice book club” – so great job Kerry and Shannon! (They are also a charity on Amazon Smile.)
What are we reading next, ladies? I’m here for it.