Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who has dedicated his life’s work to challenging bias against people of color and poor people in the criminal justice system. His book, Just Mercy, is a deeply personal look at the death penalty, and one that I think many readers would at least be challenged by. I came to the book as part of a book group in which we choose one book pro- and one book con- a position and then discuss it. I used to be for the death penalty, but a deeper look at the statistics about how the death penalty is more likely to be used and carried out against people of color, the possibility of using it against innocent people, the extreme cost of the system, and the failure to make it meet standards of avoiding cruel and unusual punishment moved me against it just a few years ago. Like many topics, it is one where I felt a deeper study of the complexity of the issue led me to a different position than I once held. The book has some graphic depictions of violence in it, and I will try to avoid those in this post, but the topic itself can be emotionally jarring.
Stevenson’s book is stunning. Yes, it is emotionally jarring, but filling in the cracks between the emotional arguments are a number of real stories that have to be accepted by those who favor the death penalty as consequences of the system. For example, there are stories included in the book of the unjust way people were sentenced to death, including children. One of these stories talks about a black 14 year old accused of murder who was then put in a courtroom that was segregated (by keeping all African Americans who were not on trial or witnesses) to face trial, defended by a lawyer with political aspirations who called no witnesses for the defense. The prosecutions “only evidence was the sheriff’s testimony…” that the child had confessed. He was convicted by an all white jury and sentenced to death in the electric chair (158-159). Yes, this is an emotional story, but it begs several questions about how the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that each of these steps could have been allowed to happen. How can we accept the death penalty as a viable punishment when people are sentenced to death on such flimsy evidence and such a clearly uninterested defense? What of the racial tensions in stories like these? Do these matter when people’s lives are at stake?
Of course, executing children seems counter-intuitive in the extreme, even if the child in question commited a heinous crime. As Stevenson points out, there is an “incongruity of not allowing children to smoke, drink, vote… and a range of other behaviors because of their well-recognized lack of maturity and judgment while simultaneously treating some of the most at-risk, neglected, and impaired children exactly the same as full-grown adults in the criminal justice system” (270). Restrictions on the death penalty for children seem to be one of those areas that perhaps even those on both sides of the issue could come to agreement on.
The primary story throughout the book, though, is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted of murder despite having dozens of witnesses who could place him at his own home at the time of the murder. The case was another in which an all-white jury was selected. He was sentenced to death based on the testimony of people who said he committed the murder, despite conflicting accounts and, again, many witnesses who saw him elsewhere. Actually, he was sentenced to life in prison, but the judge, Robert E. Lee Key, overruled the sentence and gave him capital punishment. He spent 6 years on death row before being released on lack of a case. Following this case throughout the course of the book, one is exposed to the many difficulties facing poor people of color when it comes to defending their cases. People who can afford top-tier lawyers are less likely to receive the harshest penalties. People who are white are also less likely to face capital punishment. These statistics suggest trends that need to be corrected for true justice to be accomplished.
Central to Stevenson’s book is the concept of just mercy, as the title implies. How can we have justice that also includes mercy? He hints at it when he discusses human brokenness, a passage that can serve as a way to close this look at his work: “simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity” (290).
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