This year’s UCSB Reads choice book Just Mercy is more than just the memoir of one of the country’s most famous living lawyers — it is an exposé of rampant and institutional injustice in the legal system, an example of the ever-present racial tension in the south and, above all, a story of hope.
The author, Bryan Stevenson, is the founder and current director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to prisoners, as well as a clinical law professor at New York University School of Law. But long before his rise to prominence, he was a lawyer, fresh out of Harvard Law, working in Atlanta, Ga. for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC).
In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson alternates chapters between his story about the beginnings of his legal career and the story of one of his first cases, Walter McMillian. McMillian was an African-American man, who spent six years on death row for a murder he did not commit. The case illustrates the racism still present in the deep south, and the structural inequalities denying members of the African American community — notably poor and often uneducated young men — their legal rights.
While the case made national attention at his exoneration, little attention was paid to Walter McMillian’s initial trial. Three white men with clearly contradictory and unverifiable stories testified against him, while six African-Americans served as alibi witnesses. The result: an all-white jury sentenced him to death.
A great irony in this case is where it takes place. McMillian was convicted in Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee set To Kill a Mockingbird, a high school required-reading-list staple. Stevenson writes about how during his trips to Monroeville, he noticed the town’s obsession with their relationship to the book. One courthouse clerk remarked to him, “You should go over there and stand where Mr. Peck stood — I mean, where Atticus Finch stood,” referencing Gregory Peck’s role in the 1962 film adaptation.
But as Stevenson points out, the black man who the town is so proud of in the book receives no more justice than the real-life case of Walter McMillian. Both clearly innocent men with false evidence against them, but sentenced because of the racial biases against black men. The eerie parallel reveals how even after more than fifty years since the book’s release, nothing has really changed in that community.
Yet despite this, very early on in the book you begin to root for Stevenson, feel the drain he felt as he defends many wrongfully accused clients, but also his refusal to let the barriers in front of him dampen his spirit. He defends not just the wrongfully accused, but also the abandoned mentally ill, minors facing death sentences and those with few resources to support themselves. Where other lawyers felt too discouraged and too taxed by the exhausting and often unrewarding work representing death row inmates, Stevenson used the hurdles he needed to jump as the fuel to persevere. He expresses in the book his enduring belief, that we as a people should be measured not by the achievements of the successful, but the way we work for the mistreated. While the message isn’t subtle, in fact often blatantly repeated to you, it does not detract from the story or prevent you from empathizing with
Just Mercy is engrossing, written less like a historical account and more like an old friend recounting a story to you in the car during a long road trip, allowing you to feel his passion for his work and for social justice. Through this case and many side anecdotes, Stevenson is able to place you in his shoes, his client’s shoes and in the shoes of so many people who have been failed by the criminal justice system.
This book reveals not only the laziness of the court to thoroughly ensure the right of people to be considered innocent until proven guilty, but rather how they implement the unjust and often illegal proceedings that got McMillan arrested and sent to death row, including the systemic exclusion of African-American jury members and unlawful arrests of witness presenting exonerating evidence.
His memoir relays not only the struggle of his clients, but the toll the work took on Stevenson’s well-being, held together mostly by the support from his client’s families and communities who often saw Stevenson as their last hope. Stevenson’s dedication and persistence inspires people not to be passive and follow easy assumptions, but to fight for what is just even when it is more difficult
As one man told Bryan Stevenson, “You’ve got to beat the drum for justice.”