Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau; 2014) $28.00

There is no more compelling way to be introduced to the painful realities of our land than through the study of racially charged mass incarceration and the unequal treatment of poor people by the criminal justice system. It is crucial for our understanding of the need for greater public justice and how legal practices and complex cultural attitudes about poverty and race in the United States too often subvert “liberty and justice for all.” We can learn much from the experiences of those courageous lawyers who toil over legal details at low wages as they serve in legal aid clinics to help the under-represented get a fair hearing in court.

In such a world, even stalwart conservatives like the late Charles Colson have spoken out against the death penalty, showing that what some might see as a legitimate task of the state cannot be adjudicated justly in our broken legal systems. Bryan Stevenson has served in just such situations in the Deep South, fighting unjust incarceration and badly handled legal cases involving poor, usually black, often uneducated citizens who have been degraded and sometimes abused in US prisons. His Equal Justice Initiative is an extraordinary organization, and those who have heard him speak – at gatherings such as Jubilee or Q or The Justice Conference – have long anticipated this fuller telling of his heroic tale. Just Mercy is one of the most powerful, painful, informative, and inspiring books that I have ever read. It has been worth the wait for Stevenson to find time (amidst a grueling schedule of life-and-death advocacy) to pen this must-read memoir.

In this volume, we learn the excruciating details of several of Stevenson’s key cases with the most egregious miscarriages of justice and brutal treatment of people in prison. He shows how, in Alabama particularly, bad laws and ugly practices have continued on with little reform or safeguards that have been instituted in most other states. In some cases, Alabama is one of the few places in the country where certain actions are still permitted, like putting young teens in with adult prisoners where rape and abuse are common. This book documents outrage after outrage, and you will be troubled. Stevenson’s first-person narrative is a riveting exposé that needs to be read.

Some of the racial inequity in mass incarceration and extreme punishment has been documented in Michelle Alexander’s rightly famous The New Jim Crow, so her glowing endorsement is no surprise here: “Bryan Stevenson is one my personal heroes, perhaps the most inspiring and influential crusader for justice alive today, and Just Mercy is extraordinary." Desmond Tutu says that Stevenson is “America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction.”  Southern Baptist bestselling author and lawyer John Grisham says, “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope.”

Throughout some of these stories, ironically, Stevenson is working – against compromised prosecutors, judges complicit in gross negligence and sometimes overt, disturbing racism – in the very town made popular by the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird. When Time magazine last month asked Stevenson about the obvious comparison with Atticus Finch, he was quick to note that Finch lost the famous fictional case. Stevenson realizes deep in his bones that lives of real people are at stake; he dare not resign himself to lose or to rest in the popularity of his TED talks or NPR interviews. He simply must win more of these cases, preventing children from prison abuse, staying the gruesome execution of the innocent, and offering presence and hope to the families of criminals and victims alike.

You will be hooked on this stunning story within the first few pages and on the edge of your seat, wanting to know how this young man from rural Maryland, who attended a small Christian college in Philadelphia, who was so unsure of himself at Harvard Law School, ended up staring down crass injustice with little assistance and no money. You will be reminded of the awful last chapter of Dubois’s Soul of Black Folk (“Of the Coming of John”) and you will know that intimidation and even the fear of lynching remain a reality for many of our fellow citizens here in America. Your heart will break at the stories Stevenson recounts of visiting very poor families whose loved ones have been abused by the legal system, who say to him, “These people have broken our hearts.”

How can it be that “these people” remain supportive of intransigent structural injustice, upheld by prosecutors, judges, prison officials (some who appear gruff and abusive, some who appear kind and ashamed of the outcomes of their work)? Why do not more cry out from within the legal system? What can citizens do? What might Christian lawyers and legal scholars do? This is the epic stuff of great literature, a grand story that will engage and inspire you. As Reverend Tutu writes, “It is as gripping to read as any legal thriller, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation.”

-  Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.