Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Brian Stevenson, author and narrator.
Brian Stevenson is a descendant of slaves and a strong and honorable activist for a justice system that provides fair treatment for all, especially those who are powerless and poor, those who do not have the resources for their own defense. He began his career as an intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense Fund. In 1983, when he visited a death row prisoner, as a law student, what he witnessed changed his idea of fairness and equality, changed his direction in life. To his surprise, he learned that some prisoners on Death Row never even had access to legal counsel when they were tried and convicted, or if they did, they had inadequate counsel. He was horrified by their lack of resources to defend themselves.
After graduating, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative, and he dedicated his life to the cause of those people unjustly condemned to death or life in prison. He fights for the rights of all people, male and female, child and adult, and he does it with a commitment that is almost superhuman in order to accomplish goals others before him could not or would not or dared not. Disregarding threats to his life he soldiered on to bring reform and change to the legal system, sadly, too late in many cases.
It is necessary, however, not to cavalierly dismiss the gravity of some of the crimes committed. It is necessary to understand that in addition to defending the rights of those wrongfully accused and sentenced, he also defends and attempts to change the sentence of those who are guilty but have received sentences that seem decidedly unfair and outrageous considering the crime committed. He attempts to alter sentences which do not consider the age of the perpetrator or magnitude of the deed, but are the result of general rules and protocols that must be followed. One must bear in mind that even when some of the crimes committed were heinous, brutal attacks, even murder and rape, Stevenson still believed that the mental state and age of the criminal needed to be considered before trying these children as adults and sentencing them, sometimes to death, and often to life in prison.
Bryan blames a good deal of the crimes committed by the young in a community on their poverty, their environment, their immaturity and their inability to make sound judgments which is a proven scientific concept. However, I believe the community, the parents, and the delinquent child, regardless of age, also share in the guilt and must assume some responsibility for the behavior. The problem for me, however, is not really about who is at fault; it is about appropriate punishment for the crime and appropriate rehabilitation of the criminal. Certainly the sentencing guidelines are outlandish and need to be adjusted to the crimes, the age of the criminals and the magnitude of the offense. Certainly there is a need for some reform of the justice system. When he presents his thoughtful, sympathetic point of view, even if you do not always agree, it will be hard to dismiss his sincere effort and not consider the positive effects of the results he achieves.
Learning about the actual, overt instances of discrimination and fraud in our system of justice was difficult to absorb. The injustices, the corruption, the payoffs, the unqualified experts that testify, the outright manipulation of evidence, the perjury and the arrogance of those in the system expected to protect us all equally, must be cleansed. What I read in this book is nothing less than mind shattering. It illuminated the reasons that people of color distrust law enforcement and the entire legal system. It was stacked against them by a group of people with power who were in control. In the non-white community, many have experienced, or known someone who has been subjected to, the prejudices of the ignorant and weak-minded, but more powerful, evil influences in the justice system. There is no other conclusion than that reform is necessary. Stevenson is dedicated to achieving it, but he can’t do it alone.
Once someone wins his freedom or has his sentence reversed, years have already been spent behind bars. The reentry into society is difficult and Stevenson’s organization tackles that problem as well. As I read, I thought, what can possibly make someone feel comfortable in the outside world when they have been in prison for almost 50 years? That person may be happy to be free, but how will that person thrive. Family and friends might be long gone. They are no longer young. I could not fathom how anyone in that position could possibly adjust. How do you repay someone for robbing them of their life? Yet, if their crime was murder, the victim’s family might well ask, how do you give me back my loved one’s life?
Bryan decided that the reason he has dedicated his life to this mostly thankless job, with its many failed efforts, must be because he is also broken in some way. It is hard to think of him as broken when you learn of the overwhelming gratitude of those he helps, even when he fails them. This book makes you want to get into a closet and scream and scream and scream, railing against the deceit, the treachery, the cheating and the lying that exists, against the stupidity of white supremacy in certain places in the country, at bigots who think the lives of some are not worth as much as their own. The cases described in the book infuriated me. How could anyone, even a mental midget, have convicted these victims of our flawed justice system, when some were so obviously innocent, so obviously framed, and then go home and sleep at night? They are the ones who should be in jail. All of them should be punished for their perjury, their prejudice, their arrogance, their threats and their cruelty. As you read the book you might want to weep for our damaged society, weep for those it damaged. The time lost by these wrongfully imprisoned can never be returned. Their nightmare experience cannot be forgotten. To add insult to injury, they are rarely remunerated in any way for their wrongful imprisonment.
The book does have an undeniable liberal bent. Rulings that stop funding efforts are always blamed on the right with all good results arising from the efforts of those on the left. I cannot believe that this is so, and that is my only real concern about the book and its author. I was disappointed with the slanted presentation which could lead to divisiveness. I am a fiscal conservative. I am not in favor of abortion in the late stages of pregnancy, although I am pro choice. I do not approve of capital punishment unless it is truly beyond a reasonable doubt. I consider myself a liberal when it comes to most social issues, although I sometimes think that abortion and capital punishment have as its end goal, a way to rid the world of the unwanted. I think that Stevenson is working to create a more ideal, just world, in and out of the prison system. We can only hope that his efforts are rewarded, but as he sheds light on the way the prison system’s purpose has become big business and profit rather than rehabilitation and education, a system with irrational sentencing procedures, he sometimes glosses over why we have so many more prisoners in our jails, why there is a lack of patience for repeat offenders. He seems to blame it on outside influences rather than the perpetrator.
He addresses fairness and equality. He addresses how we treat the poverty stricken, the suspected lawbreakers, the victims of a society that “worships capital and dispenses capital punishment”, but he does not address the breakdown of family and the growing absence of faith and moral values.
He eloquently describes the historic institution of laws to prevent the equality of all people that were written even after the Civil War, especially to prevent the mixing of the races and the right to vote. Racial Integrity Laws were instituted. Interracial sex and marriage was outlawed and re-justified every time it was questioned. In 1967 anti-miscegenation laws were finally repealed, but racial strife was far from over. This book should be read by every human being, every student, every teacher, every law enforcement individual, every social worker, every aid worker, everyone involved in what could become the next injustice, and so perhaps prevent it!
The book is read expertly by the author whose dedication and honest concern come through with every word. Although the book is about much more than Walter McMillian, a man betrayed by the system, it is his story that begins and ends it, and his story that will touch the heart of every reader as the symbol of all those others who suffered and continue to suffer from a flawed system. Mr. McMillian was a victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice which tainted his life forever after, but he is just the tip of the iceberg! The corruption was, and perhaps still is, pervasive throughout the justice system. After reading about actual cases of abuse, the reader will find it impossible to fail to realize why people of color and different backgrounds fear anyone associated with law enforcement. The power lies with them, and they are powerless to fight it without the help of people like Bryan Stevenson.