Books that stay on top of the stack at my bedside table until I’ve turned the last page.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
Review by Neal Griffin
After twenty-six years as a police officer, I’ve always been proud of my profession. I know a life spent in service of others is something to feel good about. I’ve worked with thousands of men and women who are much better at the job than I am, allowing me to witness heroic acts most people only read about. Nothing will ever change my opinion of the nobility of a police career, but as a law enforcement professional, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, has given me pause. The book serves as humbling evidence of the undeniably cruel, empirically measurable and, yes, racially based inequities of our legal system.
As founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, author and lawyer Bryan Stevenson has advocated for the poor and wrongfully accused for over thirty years. In Just Mercy, Stevenson provides anecdotal examples that illustrate a pattern of situations where justice has been denied to people largely because of the color of their skin and the lack of money in their wallet.
One story Stevenson tells is Walter McMillian’s.
McMillian, an African-American man, lived a humble life of independence in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, until his sudden and inexplicable arrest for murder by a posse of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. Nearly a year had passed since a local teenage girl had been killed and the unsolved crime was a source of great embarrassment for the county sheriff, Tom Tate. With nothing more to go on than an absurd and far-fetched statement concocted by a known criminal, Sheriff Tate arranged for McMillian to be arrested and transported to Alabama’s death row, located at Holman State Prison, where he was held in an unprecedented manner of pre-trial confinement.
The state’s entire case consisted of testimony from just three individuals, one of whom attempted to recant prior to trial. He was threatened with arrest if he changed his statement. Not a single item of physical evidence linking McMillian to the crime was introduced. Several witnesses testified for the defense, providing McMillian with an undisputed alibi. They were ignored.
McMillian was convicted of murder in a trial lasting less than two days. At sentencing, the jury recommended life in prison, but the presiding Judge, the Honorable Robert E. Lee Keys, overruled them and imposed a sentence of death. McMillian remained on death row, to await his date with the electric chair.
These facts are not in dispute. Stevenson’s documentation of the McMillian case is impeccable. The story of Walter McMillian did not occur in the antebellum south, or even in the years before the civil rights movement. It didn’t occur in the turbulence of the 1960’s. These events took place in 1987. Stevenson recounts many other modern-day stories within the heartbreaking pages of Just Mercy.
He writes of children as young as thirteen currently imprisoned for the rest of their lives without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses. In Florida alone, there are more than a hundred such children and every one of them is either black or Latino. Stevenson writes of women, in every case poor and predominantly women of color, imprisoned for decades for writing bad checks to cover food expenses, or for lashing out at an abusive husband.
Stevenson forces the reader to participate in the cold machinations of an actual execution, in all its barbaric reality, and leaves us with this thought:
We would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we are comfortable killing people who kill, because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity.
The strongest impression I took away from this book is the value we as a society place on criteria that should have no role in determining guilt or innocence. Stevenson says it this way:
“There is a system of justice in this country that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability shapes outcomes.”
I know with certainty this is not always the case. I know police officers who serve with honor; prosecutors of great integrity; and judges who rule with compassion and fairness. But, as in the case of Walter McMillian, when innocent citizens can so easily be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death, we all must confront a difficult truth. Because of the inequities of our legal system; coupled with the incompetence, prejudice, and bigotry of many people allowed to work within that system, we oftentimes knowingly, and with cool indifference, send innocent men, women, and children to prison. In thousands of cases, we have sent them there to die.
It was Bryan Stevenson who, after stumbling onto the McMillian case, eventually, through a long series of appeals in courtrooms beyond the confines of Monroe County, won McMillian his freedom. After spending six years on death row, McMillian was released from prison, the case against him having been totally discredited. Astonishingly, Stevenson acknowledges the harsh treatment of the original trial judge as the real cause of McMillian’s eventual release.
If Judge Robert E. Lee Keys hadn’t overridden the jury’s verdict of life imprisonment and imposed the death penalty, which brought the case to our attention, Walter would likely have spent the rest of his life incarcerated and died in a prison cell.
And what of Sheriff Tom Tate? The man who orchestrated the arrest and false conviction of Walter McMillian? He is still the elected Sheriff of Monroe County, Alabama, a position he has held for over twenty-five years.
Just Mercy is not a book that will provide an iota of an entertainment. I don’t feel at all uplifted by having read it. I wish none of it were true. That said, I consider it essential reading for anyone affected by the criminal justice system, and that is all of us.
Bryan Stevenson remains the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. His efforts and those of his co-workers and staff have won release for dozens of wrongly imprisoned Americans, many who were condemned to death.
By Bryan Stevenson
Publication Date: Paperback, August 18, 2015
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau