In light of yet another senseless murder of a black person by the police and the movement that has started as a result of George Floyd’s lynching by four Minneapolis police officers, I’ve added more books about antiracism to my immediate to-be-read shelf. As a white woman, I have long known that I have privilege that people of color are not afforded. I have endeavored to educate myself about racism, bigotry, and our horribly flawed justice system in America, and to do what I can in my life each day to fight it. I realize that I can and should always do more.
This seemed like an ideal time to read and watch Just Mercy, and I highly recommend others do the same.
Book review: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Just Mercy had been on my TBR for quite some time. It’s no secret that I often skip over nonfiction in favor of the escape of fiction, so this fantastic book languished longer that it should have. The books was first published in 2014 and is widely available in print, digitally, and in audiobook form.
From the Goodreads blurb:
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Author Bryan Stevenson is a brilliant lawyer who has spent his career fighting inequity within the American justice system that is so often anything but just towards the poor and especially minorities. He’s an activist who founded the Equal Justice Initiative as a young man in Alabama, where he guaranteed defense of anyone in that state sentenced to the death penalty, important since Alabama was the only state in the U.S. that did not provide legal assistance to death row inmates, while also having a high per-capita rate of death row sentences.
This book is a memoir about many of the inmates that Stevenson represented, both successfully and unsuccessfully, in his career. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and infuriating to learn about these cases, but sadly, not all that surprising, given how broken the criminal justice system is in this country. To understand that these horrors are happening right now in our lifetimes in this country is maddening; that so many marginalized people, including children, are left unrepresented and without advocacy in our hard, merciless criminal justice system is incredibly disheartening.
While the book discusses many of Stevenson’s cases, its primary focus is on Walter McMillian, a black man from Alabama who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a young white woman in the 1980s and sentenced to die. At his trial, he had poor representation and was convicted, with no physical evidence, based solely on perjured testimony coerced by local police from a white man convicted of other crimes. Despite this coerced testimony being completely unbelievable, and despite McMillian having multiple alibi witnesses, a jury convicted him and imposed a sentence of life in prison. The judge overrode that decision and imposed the death penalty. Enter Stevenson and The Equal Justice Initiative, who still had to struggle for many years to get this man exonerated and released.
McMillian’s story, like each one of the cases highlighted in the book, moved me. The story of Herbert Richardson’s case and execution, and that of Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to die after committing a crime when he was 13 years old, left me speechless and angry.
The subject matter is harrowing, but the writing itself is strong, and this book was a quick read for me. As is so often the case when I read nonfiction, I was led to learn more about the cases and people in this book. Stevenson talks about his own experiences as a black man in the south in addition to the case files of his clients. None of this is easy to digest or accept, but all of it needs to be read and understood by everyone. I’ve never been in favor of the death penalty, and this book does nothing but cement that view even more.
Movie review: Just Mercy (2019)
From the film’s website:
“Just Mercy” is based on the powerful and thought-provoking true story of young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). One of his first, and most incendiary, cases is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the main testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings, as well as overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds—and the system—stacked against them.
The film is a well-acted, faithful dramatization of Stevenson’s memoir and Walter McMillian’s legal battles. I thought Michael B. Jordan’s performance was incredibly moving, especially in the scenes where Stevenson is clearly emotional because of the way he himself is being treated as black man in the south attempting to clear another black man’s name. Jamie Foxx is fantastic as McMillian, and his scenes on death row and in the courtroom are powerful. Brie Larson is also very good in this movie as EJI operational director Eva Ansley. For me, the most absolutely gutting scenes centered around Herbert Richardson, and actor Rob Morgan is amazing in this role. I did not make it through this movie without feeling outrage and heartache all over again, and I certainly did not make it without a lot of tears.
Right now, the movie Just Mercy is available to watch for free across many platforms, and I highly recommend you see it:
This country needs a lot more people like Bryan Stevenson.
Black Lives Matter.