Toward the beginning of his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes, “I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (18). In the course of the book, he relates how he came to believe this, and how he came to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit that, according to its website, “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
The main story Stevenson tells in the book is that of Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson began representing in the 1980s. McMillian, who is black, was on death row after being convicted of killing a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama—the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the real-life model for its fictional town of Maycomb—but he didn’t do it. As Stevenson digs into the case, he finds evidence that, since it was a high-profile crime and the public was anxious for a conviction, the local authorities were more than willing to pin it on McMillian, despite the fact that witnesses saw McMillian elsewhere while the crime was being committed. During jury selection, the prosecution excluded African Americans. During the trial, the prosecution relied on two key witnesses who lied. And when the jury recommended life in prison, the presiding judge stepped in and escalated it to the death penalty. (State court judges in Alabama are elected by popular vote, and nobody who is looking to win an election wants to be seen as “soft on crime.”)
Stevenson intersperses McMillian’s story with the stories of other people he has represented, including the mentally ill and those who were serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. As he tells story after story, the evidence piles up that it is too easy in our justice system to wrongfully convict or excessively punish people who lack the resources to defend themselves. Racism is often a factor in unjust convictions and harsh sentences, as it was in the case of McMillian, but Stevenson is careful not to lay all of the problems of our justice system at the feet of systemic racism. All of the people whose stories he tells are poor, but they are of different races. It seems the bigger culprit, of which even racism is a symptom, is our tendency to treat people who are different from us—culturally, racially, socioeconomically—as an Other to be feared and controlled. In this situation, it is the poor, minorities, and mentally ill especially who don’t have the means to resist the ways in which we try to control them or keep them at a distance, both physically and psychologically.
Stevenson doesn’t write about where his vision of justice comes from—why he sees certain things as just and others as unjust. And aside from occasional mentions of church attendance and prayer, he doesn’t talk about his religious commitments. He doesn’t explicitly root his vision of justice and mercy in a particular view of the world, and that’s probably for the best if he wants to convince people from any religion and no religion that justice reform is needed. But I believe his vision is deeply Christian, and the church can learn much from it. I especially saw this in his chapter, “Broken,” in which he sees all people as united in their brokenness:
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill [one of his clients who was about to be executed] and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us. … Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (289)
We are all prone to sort the world into Us vs. Them, and then think the solution to our problems is for Us to get rid of Them. Even many readers of Just Mercy may fall into thinking the solution to the problems in our justice system is for Us (the enlightened readers of this book) to seize power and punish them (the racists, those who profit from mass incarceration, etc.).
But according to Stevenson, the solution to fear and hatred of the Other is seeing what unites us. And what unites us is not our race, or status, or our intellectual ability, or our nationality. According to Stevenson (and even though he doesn’t explicitly root it there, this is firmly within the mainstream of the historic Christian understanding of humanity), what unites us is that we are all broken in some way. We are all in need of justice and mercy.
Disclaimer: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.