‘Just Mercy’

Author’s note: It’s #ThrowbackThursday here at An American Bluestocking, when I share earlier takes on books I think are worth your time. I originally wrote this review in January 2016; it was published on LibraryThing.

This book broke my heart.

One of the (few) encouraging things that seems to be coming out of our current deeply dysfunctional political process is growing bipartisan agreement that the United States is in desperate need of criminal justice reform. Politicians from both major parties are realizing that “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws, harsh solitary confinement practices, overly punitive punishment for juveniles who commit crimes, racial disparities in sentencing, overzealous prosecutions that ignore exculpatory evidence in order to secure conviction — all of these are having a profoundly negative effect on our society. (A cynic might note that the recent Republican interest in providing treatment instead of prison for drug users only came once the opioid epidemic struck middle-class whites, but I digress).

All of these issues are explored by Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy (Random House, 2014), subtitled “A Story of Justice and Redemption”. And it’s true, some of the people Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, try to help do receive justice and some form of redemption, eventually. But it’s hard to feel triumphant about the outcomes when you read about how thoroughly their lives have been shattered before that justice is finally served.

Stevenson’s main focus is on Walter McMillian, a black man who has lived a largely blameless life in Alabama until he is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white teenager despite having been continuously in the company of more than 20 people at the time of the killing. The ways in which justice was mauled in

his initial trial are shocking and infuriating. It’s the sort of tale that would get rejected as completely unbelievable if someone wrote it as an episode of Law and Order. And yes, racism was absolutely a factor in his case, and in many aspects of EJI’s work. More than once, Stevenson himself is spoken to harshly by judges, bailiffs, law enforcement officers who don’t realize they are speaking to a black graduate of Harvard Law School and not just another black defendant. They are unable to see past the color of his skin, even when he is wearing a suit and sitting in a courtroom.

Of course innocent mistakes occur, but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. 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.

Interspersed with chapters about Stevenson’s attempts to win Walter a stay of execution, a new trial, or exoneration are explorations of other aspects of the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed. The EJI successfully argued before the Supreme Court that sentencing juveniles to death row or life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, first for non-homicide crimes and eventually for all crimes. They also advocated for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, many of whom are sentenced to death or life in prison without even understanding what they have done.

Walter’s case is a clear-cut case of wrongful conviction, but not every case that Stevenson and EJI took involved saving the innocent. Many times, the question wasn’t whether the defendant had committed the crime, but whether the sentence received was proportional to the crime, or whether the defendant had received the adequate legal counsel that they are entitled to under the Constitution.

Presenting a mix of cases and circumstances gave the book even more power for me. It’s easy to feel indignant about innocent people being executed or left to rot in jail. It’s harder to feel sympathy — and yes, mercy — for the guilty, but Stevenson’s powerful rhetoric made me understand the need for such compassion in a very personal way.

The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent — strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. I drove home broken and brokenhearted about Jimmy Dill. But I knew I would come back the next day. There was more work to do.

Quotable quotes from favorite books

“So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak — not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken.”

— Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

Big things come in small packages

a family tragedy of the american west

Montana 1948 (Milkweek, 2007) is a story of sibling rivalry, the malleability of the criminal justice system when it’s applied to people of color, the internal struggles that we all experience when it feels like the only way to do the right thing is by doing the wrong thing. The spare prose and the slender size of the book make the complex depth of the characters all the more astonishing.

Cover image of Montana 1948

David Hayden is 12 years old in 1948, when his family’s housekeeper, a Native American woman named Marie Little Feather, becomes ill and is later found dead in her room at the Hayden house. The truth about what happened to her, and the repercussions of both the original acts and the subsequent reactions, tear apart the Hayden family in painful and irrevocable ways.

Watson has a way with evocative description that made me feel as if I had once visited the small Montana town where the Haydens lived, in the High Plains eastern part of the state. And his rendering of Adult David’s thoughts about the events of that long-ago summer made me feel as if I was right there in his head, looking back on my own memories:

… the sound of breaking glass, the odor of rotting vegetables. … I offer these images in the order in which they occurred, yet the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so that no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during. That’s the way these images coexist in my memory, like the Sioux picture calendars in which the whole year’s event are painted on the same buffalo hide, or like a tapestry with every scene woven into the same cloth, every moment on the same flat plane, the summer of 1948 …

Larry Watson

Watson effectively uses the first-person perspective of an adult David looking back on this time in his life. While grown-up David occasionally adds some big-picture perspective and hindsight, he’s also careful to emphasize his younger self’s bafflement at some of the secrets and discussion that he overhears. He calls himself naïve for a boy of 12, and I think he would be in today’s culture, but I suspect many 1948-era 12-year-olds would seem rather immature to today’s tweens.

I suggested this book to my real-life book club as part of our criminal justice theme. (I first read it in 2015 but didn’t review it then and didn’t remember enough to feel comfortable leading a discussion without re-reading.) The other books we’ve read for this theme include The Green Mile by Stephen King, Minority Report by Philip K. Dick, A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. That last book is without doubt a book every American should read, but Watson’s minor masterpiece just might be my favorite.