Until I read Bryan Stevenson’s gut-wrenching book “Just Mercy,” I thought I was well informed on inequities in the American justice system. How wrong I was, particularly about the South, but also in many other locales throughout the country. Police, prosecutors, jails, judges and the public frequently look the other way or operate with impunity when arresting, charging, trying and sentencing people of color.
Yet, the inequities don’t stop there. Just Mercy’s true stories and case histories also unveil cruel and inhumane treatment of many juveniles, the mentally challenged and people of any race who have the misfortune to be poor in a corrupt community run by renegade officials.
The book’s most detailed and arguably its most egregious example of corruption is the treatment received by Walter McMillian, an Alabama black man on death row falsely accused of killing a white woman. While following Walter’s story, readers also get to know Bryan Stevenson, the author-lawyer and superhero who gives his all for Walter and others who are prosecuted and persecuted in multiple ways.
The book has been compared to a true-life 1980s version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But beyond the drama and tension involving the incarcerated, I was blown away by Bryan Stevenson, a brave extraordinary man: a Mother Theresa-type of human being who painstakingly devotes his life to helping the bereft and powerless.
Shortly after finishing Harvard Law School, Stevenson writes about opening a one man law office in Alabama. Then, for the next 300+ pages I marvel at his successes that evolve into what the world now knows as the Equal Justice Initiative. https://eji.org/projects/true-justice/
Stevenson knows that every accused person is not innocent. He does, however, believe that, if innocent, you should be allowed to prove it in a fair and just court. Also, he believes that all incarcerated people, including the guilty, should be treated with just mercy, like Charlie. Charlie, a small 13 year-old boy, shot his mother’s abusive boyfriend and was put in an adult prison and repeatedly raped.
“Just Mercy” documents many cases like Charlie. Trina Garnett was a 14 year-old, and one of twelve children whose mother died when Trina was nine. Trina accidentally started a fire and received life in prison because two boys died from smoke inhalation. She was already traumatized from beatings and sexual abuse by her father. Additionally, her mental acuity was stunted from having ingested lighter fuel at age 9. These sorry and silent statistics continued with Ian, George, Avery, Marsha, etc.
As I write this, we are experiencing historic times in our country and the world. Tens of thousands are dying from the coronavirus, the economy has tanked, and our justice system is still killing and abusing way too many people. However, what happened 19 days ago, on May 25, 2020, to George Floyd just might change the way fair and merciful justice is doled out by police, prosecutors, jailers, judges and the court of public opinion in America.