Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” is a look inside the American incarceration system and how it influences poor people of color in particular. Stevenson presents his memoir, a story of his experience of over 30 years representing people on death row, and particularly those facing more horrific effects of America’s mass incarceration system.
Stevenson, a lawyer who graduated from Harvard Law, started the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and worked in the South (particularly in Alabama) to take on death row clients pro bono. Stevenson speaks about how he grew up in a racially segregated area in the 1970s. As the descendant of American slaves, he felt a drive to help people who the American system did not care about. Notably, at Harvard, Stevenson was frustrated by the stoic pedagogical approach on teaching law, noting that “the curriculum focused on figuring out how to maximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefits achieved and the costs created.”
One of the main cases he delineates from his line of work is that of Walter McMillian, an African American man who was put on death row for a murder of a woman named Ronda Morrison, a crime he didn’t commit.
I picked up this book because I heard of the adapted movie, featuring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. Knowing that it was based on a true story, I thought that the true account in the book would be more compelling to read than the movie’s depiction. I was right. To summarize the case of Walter McMillian, in Nov. of 1986, Ronda Morrison was shot and killed in a dry-cleaning. A man named Ralph Myers accused McMillian of forcing him into his truck, robbing the cleaners, and then killing Morrison, meanwhile McMillian was with family members at a fish fry event, where many people, family and clients, could attest to his alibi.
However, this was the only evidence the State needed to convict McMillian. Stevenson recounts that although Myers later retracted his lies before the trial, the State failed to disclose the confession to McMillian’s lawyer, instead pushing forward with the trial. He discusses all manners of coercion and corruption designed to incriminate McMillian, including a recorded interrogation between the State and Myers in which the prosecutors coerced Myers into sticking to his story, threatening to send him to death row otherwise. The book continues the story that reveals more shocking revelations, including corruption of the judge on trial. Additionally, Stevenson struggled for a representative jury that represented the city of where the trial resided, instead of the automatic all-white jury that was readily present in his cases.
There was a quote in the beginning of the book that grabbed my attention, “Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital gets the punishment.’” I felt this perfectly described how gray the rules are when it comes to socioeconomic and racial divides between Americans.
I entreat anyone to read this book, as we need to focus on the microaggressions written within United States law, as they are just as destructive to an underrepresented community as the loud, racially motivated acts that fill our timeline today.
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