Just Mercy is a book about one mans initiative to challenge the prevailing injustices in America’s criminal justice system. Bryan Stevenson created the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 as a non profit organization to defend citizens against excessive imprisonment and wrongful prosecution. In the beginning Stevenson worked alone until he could employ other staff with the support of grants and donations. Today his successes have allowed him to generate sufficient support to expand his network.
Stevenson grew up poor in Delaware, attended Eastern College in Philadelphia and received a law degree from Harvard University. He first began defending clients in Georgia before moving to Alabama, where he co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson doesn’t say what made him choose the defense of the convicted as his calling, and the project in the beginning is short on staff and resources, but he quickly establishes himself as an attorney that felons know they can trust.
Most of Just Mercy centers on the conviction of Walter McMillian for the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama in 1987. The eye witness alibi, from family members, that put Walter at a family fish fry at the time of the murder, was discounted by the jury and judge. With the false testimony of 3 coerced witnesses Walter spent 6 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. An incriminating factor in the case, specific to the south, was that Walter was known to be having an extra marital affair with a white woman, not the victim. The jury sentenced Walter to a life sentence, but the presiding judge, Robert E. Lee Key converted the sentence to death. After appeals Stevenson was able to get the conviction commuted. Walter McMillian’s case was also the subject of a 60 Minutes segment, reported by Ed Bradley, and a book titled, Circumstantial Evidence (1995) written by Pete Earley. Walter McMillian died in 1993.
Just Mercy is also a commentary on many of the flaws of America’s justice system as detailed in other cases in the book. The systemic brutality among inmates and the guards and the imprisonment of citizens with mental health problems are detailed. Stevenson also gives insightful information about the conditions in women’s prisons and his personal relationships with the families of the inmates he defends even after he has won their release.
Bryan Stevenson has gained wide praise for his defense of defendants who would otherwise have no one else to turn to. He won a MacArthur “genius” grant and Sweden’s Olof Palme prize and was the driving force of the newly opened The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. A memorial in recognition of America’s legacy of lynching. Just Mercy is a necessary book to read and I highly recommend it.