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Monday, December 8, 2014

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

I heard the author interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air and I knew I had to read this book. The audio is narrated by the author which is risky when the author isn't a professional performer, but he did a great job.

Bryan Stevenson is a black man who went to Harvard Law School and started a non-profit in Alabama, defending criminals on death row. Alabama has more death row inmates and commits more executions per capita than any other state. And it doesn't have public defenders. Some of the private lawyers with no experience defending capital murder cases are paid as little as $500 to do so. It's not too shocking that a lot of innocent people are convicted, or people are convicted of capital murder when they should have been up for manslaughter.

Bryan spends fully half the book on one tragic case, that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted of murder, despite having had several dozen eyewitnesses to his whereabouts at the time of the crime (among many extenuating circumstances that should have lead to him not being convicted.) The chapters about Walter's case alternate with chapters about the scores of other clients Bryan has dealt with over the years who deserved much more mercy than they were shown by the system. There is a woman who was convicted of murdering her child, even though she had never been pregnant (she'd had a tubal ligation years earlier.) There was the pre-teen who shot and killed his mother's abuser after he had brutally beaten her (and the boy thought she had been killed) and who was given murder one because the abusive boyfriend was a cop. There are children and the mentally handicapped who he fought for, winning Supreme Court cases that overturned dozens of convictions across the country (creating a massive amount of work for Bryan and his non-profit as each and every one of those convictions needs to be individually appealed after the ruling. Those "overturns" are far from automatic.) Bryan fights the good fight with respect, empathy, and what must be an endless supply of energy. He continues on despite numerous occasions of racism directed at him (one judge yells at him for being in the courtroom instead of in holding with the other prisoners, assuming he must be the defendant. SWAT officers surround his car, handcuff him, and illegally search his car which was parked in front of his home, because he was sitting in it organizing paperwork and listening to the radio at the end of a long day.)

He crafts detailed portraits of the faces of injustice, without ever sounding bitter or angry. I was occasionally angry on his behalf or on behalf of his clients, who certainly got the short shrift in life. But I feel that once Bryan comes into their lives, things will be better. He doesn't win every case, and some people he just can't help, but he still provides solace and these prisoners still finally feel heard and respected for the first time, even if ultimately he can't help them all to not be executed.

A powerful and enraging portrait of the failures of our much-vaunted justice system, which does sometimes fail us. I hope Mr. Stephenson continues to have great success and I hope he writes follow-up books as his writing skills are equally as masterful as his legal skills.

I checked this book out of the library.

1 comment:

Shaina said...

Awesome review! I referenced your post in mine today—http://shainareads.blogspot.com/2014/12/nonfiction-on-tap-just-mercy-by-bryan.html