I finished Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy while I was sitting in the waiting room at the clinic today. Here’s some solid advice, read this book at home. I didn’t follow that advice and the tears were streaming down my face as I read the incredibly moving story of a woman whose grandson was murdered but who felt no joy when the teens who killed him were sentenced to life in prison without parole. Seeing their lives laid waste compounded her sorrow and she cried and a woman, a stranger sat with her while she cried. So for fifteen years she has come to the courthouse for families of victims and defendants. “ I guess I just felt like maybe I could be someone, you know, that somebody hurting could lean on.”

It is rare compassion in a book full of cruelty and inhumanity. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that primarily represents people on death row and children who have been sentenced as adults to absurdly long sentences. He is the lawyer whose appeals to the Supreme Court ended LWOP for juvenile defendants.

While every other chapter focuses on his work freeing Walter McMillian, an egregious case of racist police, prosecutor, and judge railroading an innocent blackman because he offended the community by having an affair with a white woman. In an absurd kind of irony, this all happened in the town Harper Lee is from, the town of To Kill a Mockingbird. The community had a huge industry around this book about an innocent black man being sentenced to death and yet had no problem doing that very thing. The level of malfeasance is hard to believe, except of course, he was a black man with ineffective counsel.

Ineffective counsel is pretty much the norm for poor people and it gets worse all the time. Gideon v. Wainwright may guarantee people a right to counsel, but the Supreme Court has been lax about making it a reality and states and the federal government have cut funding to the bone. In one capital case that Stevenson worked  appealed, the state provided $1000 for two lawyers who spent all their time arguing about who would get the money. When the defendant said there was a pay check that could prove his mental illness (This makes sense in context.) The lawyers got the check, cashed it and took the money and did not present it in evidence. The litany of bad faith in defending people, in expert testimony, in prosecution is heartbreaking.

A good lawyer needs to be able to construct a compelling narrative and Stevenson is a good lawyer. Just Mercy is a book that is hard to put down, except sometimes, I had to put it down just because the level of injustice and heartbreak is too much to bear. When he tells of his clients who were sentenced to life without parole at 13 and 14 years, including a 14 year old girl who set an accidental fire lighting matches as she moved through a dark house in order to see. She’s still in prison. This book is filled with heartbreaking stories that are woven around the narrative of freeing Walter McMillian.

Just Mercy is a call to action. I thought about my mother while I was reading this. She loved poetry and memorized a lot, but her favorite memorized piece was the soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice and she would recite its entirety any time she got a chance. I can remember her rolling out pie crust and reciting, “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes…It is an attribute to God himself; and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. 

We live in a punitive society, our criminal justice system is oriented toward retribution, not rehabilitation. Reparative justice and reconciliation are perceived as weak, though there is nothing weaker than the fear that drives retribution. This is compounded by racism which is endemic, most particularly in the criminal justice system, and poverty which is perceived by many as a moral failing, making poverty easy to criminalize through poor access to counsel. Many of the side effects of poverty such as lack of health care are used as evidence to condemn people. Stevenson is clearing the Aegean stables trying to shovel faster than the injustice system. We all of us are complicit in this injustice, perhaps by reading Just Mercy people will be inspired to help.

I was provided a promotional copy of Just Mercy by the publisher through Blogging for Books.