Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Review by Blythe Meigs

Bryan Stevenson has a strong faith and it comes through loud and clear in his writing.  At the end of the book he discusses the brokenness of his clients and the realization that we are all broken.  “I am more than broken.  In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.  When you experience mercy, you learn thing that are hard to learn otherwise.  You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear.  You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

This is the one book I wish all my friends would read.  Compelling, heartbreaking, hopeful and so much more.  Like the movie, the book details the story of Walter McMillian who was arrested, convicted and sent to death row for a murder he didn’t commit.  In spite of a lack of physical evidence and witness statements from questionable witnesses, including one that later recanted, the prosecutor forged ahead to send an innocent man to death row.

Unlike the movie, the book covers Bryan Stevenson’s own story in parallel to Walter’s.  I learned so much about the difficulties Bryan faced with defending Walter and in so many other cases.  I had no idea how many people we are imprisoning in the USA – we are 4% of the earth’s population but we have 22% of earth’s prisoners.  Our statistics are even worse for children – for example, Florida has the largest population in the world of children condemned to die in prison for non-homicides.

Bryan’s stories are heartbreaking – for example, there is the story of Ian who was sent to prison for life – when he was thirteen years old!  Sent to an adult prison as a young teenager, Ian spent 18 years in solitary confinement for his own protection from the other prisoners.  The victim of his crime contacted the judge and said that his sentence was too harsh and his confinement was inhumane, but nothing was done to help Ian.  And there is Trina, sentenced to life in prison at the age of 15.  Trina’s judge said, “This is the saddest case I’ve ever seen.”  As of the writing of this book (2014) Trina turned 52 and had spent 39 years in a Pennsylvania prison.  Most of the stories Bryan told detailed horrific abuse and neglect of these children – is a lifetime in prison the best we can do for them?  Are they beyond repair?

Bryan discusses some of the cases he has taken on trying to find relief for prisoners suffering from serious mental illness.  I think we have all seen the effects of deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill on the streets of Seattle, and in many cases the mentally ill have no access to healthcare or mental health treatment, so the outcome is predictable.  Bryan told about a mentally ill man on Alabama’s death row named Avery Jenkins.  Avery was guilty of murder, but his mental illness was never brought up in his trial.  Ultimately, Bryan won a new trial for Avery who was removed from death row and put into an institution to receive treatment.

There was the story of Marsha Colbey, a mother of six, who was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility for parole for having a stillborn baby and lying about it.  There were extenuating circumstances (geriatric pregnancy, no health insurance or money for pregnancy healthcare and a distrust of a neighbor who inquired about her dead baby).  Without a proper defense, she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Is this justice?

Bryan has so many examples of injustice in our American justice system – it shocked me and I think it will shock you too.  I am sickened that we treat rich celebrities who commit fraud with minimal jail time/penalties and we throw those without expensive legal representation into jail forever.  As a Christian, I believe that there has to be a better way to treat all of God’s children and I want to do more to support those who are without funds for fair representation.  I believe it is important for Christians to learn, understand and fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.  We can do better, be better.
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