In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
“Just Mercy” is civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir on his dedication to justice through his legal nonprofit, Equal Justice Initiative or EJI. He writes about the hardship of mostly representing low-income individuals of color in punishment-heavy states who have committed low-level crimes or were wrongly accused of high-level crimes and received death or lifelong imprisonment sentences. He dives into his story but simultaneously focuses on the stories of his clients that reflect the way a legal system will move forward on injustice because of corruption and the lack of resources.
Bryan is fresh out of Harvard Law School in 1983 when he decides to head to Alabama for an internship. There, he eventually meets Walter McMillian, who is sitting on death row for a murder of a young white female clerk. He swears he did not commit the murder and even has countless people to support his alibi. Bryan works feverishly to expose the mistakes that led to Walter’s arrest and imprisonment, and while doing this, his popularity among others suffering a similar fate as Walter is building. He establishes his nonprofit and hires more lawyers and legal staff to help him in numerous cases. Throughout the book, he tells the stories of the people behind bars he helps in several states, but Walter’s story is the one that resonates the entire time.
The book is packed with easily digestible information with weaving in true-life stories that almost seem unbelievable by the way the people had been thrown in prison and even given harsh sentences over crimes they had committed as a juvenile or had not committed at all. The EJI is against the death penalty because many of its clients had been wrongfully imprisoned or had severe mental illness issues that contributed to their crimes. It believes in the notion that many others in the same predicament have yet to see justice. The topic is controversial, but Bryan justifies his point with integrating the socioeconomic and medical backgrounds of his clients on top of the nation’s history that played a role in the oversized prison community and the state and federal players at work to pack prisons for profit. He also adds the voices of some people he’s met over the years who were connected to victims and how they seldom feel satisfied with the death penalty.
Overall, the book melds autobiography with criminal justice history well and lays out a system where failures have ruined lives.