Bryan Stevenson’s JUST MERCY: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014) tells of a broken criminal justice system with little justice and less mercy for poor people, juveniles, minorities and the mentally ill and the mentally retarded.
He is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, which provides lawyers to indigents and to people who have been denied adequate legal representation.
Stevenson and the other EJI lawyers have freed people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. They also have argued for mercy for abused children, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded who have been tried and punished, sometimes with death sentences or life sentences, as if there were no mitigating circumstances.
We are all broken people in one way or another, Stevenson wrote. None of us deserves to be judged on the basis of the worst thing we have ever done. All of us, not just poor and abused people, are in need of mercy and mitigation.
Just Mercy weaves together three themes. One is the story of Walter McMillan, a black man sentenced to die for a crime he obviously could not have committed, and Stevenson’s six-year struggle to prevent his execution and prove his innocence.
Another is the story of the EJI and the other individuals, both black and white, whom Stevenson has defended, not always successfully.
The third theme consists of facts and figures on the flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system—racial disparities, lack of adequate legal representation of poor people, sentencing of juveniles as adult offenders, harsh treatment of the mentally ill and mentally retarded, punishment of poor mothers who suffer miscarriages and are treated as murderesses.
Stevenson successfully argued before the Supreme Court that it is “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution for a juvenile to be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment without parole. Yet, he said, the intent of this decision is often thwarted by judges sentencing juvenile as adults to a term of imprisonment equal to their life expectancy.
The Walter McMillan case was the most shocking of the cases he described, because it was an obvious frame-up, yet McMillan might well have been executed if Stevenson and his fellow lawyers had not intervened, and if a lengthy appeals process had not been possible.
McMillan, a middle-aged black man, was the successful and hardworking operator of a pulpwood business who was unpopular because he had had an affair with a white woman. A drug dealer named Ralph Myers, who was being questioned in relation to a murder, tried to get off by offering to testify against other people in other unsolved murders. He implicated McMillan in the murder of a popular 18-year-old white college student, Ronda Morrison, who worked for a dry cleaner.
Myers said that McMillan approached him at filling station, and ordered Myers to get into his pickup truck and drive because he had a sore arm. He said McMillan had him stop the truck in front of the dry cleaners and wait. He said McMillan came out, told him he had murdered the young woman, had him drive back to the filling station and let him go.
Obviously this story that doesn’t make sense. Moreover McMillan had an alibi. On the day of the murder, he was working on his truck at home while members of his church were holding a bake sale on his lawn. Many people, both black and white, saw him there.
Myers soon got cold feet and repudiated his testimony. Police arrested both Myers and McMillan and put them on death row in a state prison. Myers soon reaffirmed his testimony. Police meanwhile got two jail inmates to testify that had seen McMillan’s truck at the murder scene.
A volunteer witness came forward to swear that one of the two other witnesses was elsewhere at the time. Police arrested him, and told him he would be charged with perjury if he did not withdraw his testimony.
Read the book to learn the full story, but suffice it to say that Stevenson and his team disproved all the prosecution’s so-called evidence, and proved that McMillan was elsewhere at the time. But his conviction was not reversed until a report on the case was broadcast on TV’s 60 Minutes.
Ironically, this case happened in Monroeville, Alabama, the setting for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In the story, Tom Robinson, the innocent black man, is convicted despite the efforts of the white lawyer Atticus Finch. McMillan was freed after six years on death row.
The story did not end happily, however. He was never able to resume his business, and he was traumatized by his experience. Stevenson said it may have contributed to early-onset dementia. He tells of McMillan in his nursing home, thinking he is back on death row.
The McMillan case was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But such things are not a thing of the past. The Equal Justice Initiative recently won the release of Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
One of the most touching cases is Avery Jenkins. His father had been murdered before he was born, his mother had died of a drug overdose before he was one, and he was in 19 different foster homes by the time he was eight. When he was 10, his foster mother, tired of caring for him, took him into the woods, tied him to a tree and left him there; hunters found him three days later. At age 13, he was addicted to drugs. At 15, he was having seizures and psychotic episodes. At 17, he was homeless.
At age 20, he thought he was being pursued by demons and wandered into a strange house, where he stabbed and killed an elderly man, thinking he was a demon. Yet he was sentenced to death as if he had been sane and responsible for his actions.
When Stevenson went to interview Jenkins, he saw a pickup truck outside the prison, covered with Confederate flag decals and bumper stickers about Southern identity, including “If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have picked my own damn cotton.”
The correctional officer in charge took Stevenson by the arm and told him he wanted him to know that this was his pickup truck. Then he required Stevenson to remove all his clothes and submit to a complete body search.
All Jenkins wanted talk about in his interviews with Stevenson was whether he had brought him a chocolate milk shake. He never could bring him one, because that was contrary to prison regulations
The same correctional officer was in charge of transporting Jenkins to court when Stevenson argued for a change of sentence, on the grounds that his previous lawyers had not been able to bring up all the mitigating circumstances. In the end he got him off death row and into a place where he could get mental health treatment.
When Stevenson visited Jenkins after the hearing, the correctional officer’s attitude had completely changed. He said he had listened to Stevenson’s arguments in court. He remembered how he had grown up in foster homes himself and been abused as a child. He told Stevenson he had a lot of pent-up anger still. But he said he now appreciated there were other people in the world who had had it even worse than he did.
And, he said, he made an illegal stop on the way back to the prison and bought Avery Jenkins his chocolate milk shake.
Toward the end of the book Stevenson tells of encountering an elderly black woman in a courtroom in New Orleans. She told him that her 16-year-old grandson had been murdered 15 years before. She watched the trial, conviction and sentencing of her grandson’s killers, but this didn’t ease the pain of her loss.
Another woman in the courtroom let her lean on her, and that did help. So since then she visited courtrooms to offer to let people in pain lean on her.
She told Stevenson he is a “stone catcher.” In the Gospel story of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Today, she said, people are so unforgiving that they cast stones anyway, so people like herself and Stevenson have to be stone catchers.
One Lawyer’s Fight for Young Blacks and ‘Just Mercy,’ an interview with Bryan Stevenson for National Public Radio.
‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson, a review by Ted Conover for The New York Times.
The Disgrace of Our Criminal Justice by David Cole for the New York Review of Books.