By Bryan Stevenson
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Scribe Publishing) is also a movie starring Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillan, the man Bryan tries to save from death row.
Based on the powerful true story of young Harvard-educated African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy is a New York Times #1 bestseller.
Bryan almost stumbled into his law degree when he realised his study of philosophy wouldn’t make a sustainable career.
After meeting men on death row, particularly in the state of Alabama in America’s Deep South, he recognised that many of these men were innocent. Many were African American, poor men of colour: poor and minority groups were victimised.
He learned from a mentor that “capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment”.
From a young age many “black and brown boys” are in trouble with the police. Even as a professionally dressed lawyer, Bryan has been a target because of his skin colour.
He was mistaken for a client awaiting trial by a judge who told him harshly to wait in the corridor for his lawyer. This is one of his examples of how many people of colour are treated and is part of the “accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumption … Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”
It becomes clear to Bryan that the race of the victim, even more than the accused, is the greatest predictor of who receives the death penalty or not. Many death row inmates were accused of killing white people.
Walter McMillan’s story frames the structure of the book and is the core case in the movie. Walter was accused of murdering beautiful young white woman Ronda Morrison when the local authorities were at a loss to find a killer.
Bryan meets Walter on death row and realises that he could not possibly have committed the murder. Overcoming great obstacles, he and his team dismantle the roadblocks erected by the legal system and those who falsely implicated Walter. Bryan assembles evidence and builds a case with the aim of proving Walter’s innocence.
In a telling scene, Walter’s family and supporters are not allowed to enter the court building because of their skin colour.
It is a sad irony that Walter lived in Monroe County, Alabama, where Harper Lee’s feted To Kill a Mockingbird is set.
Walter is innocent of murder but his case is muddied by his affair with a white woman. His family, loving wife, friendship with Bryan and Bible sustain him.
Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative and remains its Executive Director. He is now also a professor of law at New York University.
Throughout his life, beginning as a boy at church, he has treated all people with respect, believing the true measure of our character is how we treat the vulnerable.
The book differs from the movie by delving further into his other work, such as representing children facing the death penalty and serving life imprisonment and helping the mentally ill in prison and young women falsely accused of murdering their stillborn babies. Case studies personalise these situations.
Bryan meets an elderly woman whose grandson was murdered. She has since found her vocation by helping those she sees grieving at court, often the parents of those convicted. She describes herself as a “stonecatcher”, someone people in pain could lean on. She deplores the actions of some “judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t even care … I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”
The woman also sees Bryan as a stonecatcher and he takes on the mantle by telling church congregations and others to forgive, show compassion and act as stonecatchers as well.
The title Just Mercy reflects Bryan’s life and endeavours. He meets brokenness with compassion, hope and truth. He urges others to show “just mercy”.
Thank you to Scribe Publishing for the review copy of Just Mercy.
Just Mercy movie trailer
Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk 2012 We Need to Talk about an Injustice
From 60 Minutes archives: The True Story Behind “Just Mercy”