Bryan Stevenson is quite a human being. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is now a lawyer for the poor and imprisoned. He is a Macarthur Fellow (a recipient of the commonly called “Genius Grant”). He has a very popular, oft-streamed TED Talk. (Watch it by clicking here). And, now in his 50s, he has never tasted a drop of alcohol because of a promise he made to his grandmother. (You’ll have to read the book for that story).
I presented my synopsis of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, his best-selling book, at the February Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare.
Here’s a short summary of the book: because of reasons such as racism, and shoddy police work, people end up in prison, and on death-row, when they were not at all guilty for the crime they were convicted for.
The book’s main story (not its only story, but its main story), is the story of Walter McMillian. The list of “mistakes” that put him on death row is a long one: he had a solid alibi (he actually was somewhere else when the young woman named Ronda Morrison was murdered). The witness that led to his conviction lied, and later recanted. The police, the prosecutor, and defense all ignored critical evidence that showed Walter to be innocent.
And – and this is amazing – if the judge had not sentenced him to death instead of to life in prison, which was the recommendation of the jury, Bryan Stevenson would have never discovered the case and taken it on, and Walter McMillian would have died in prison. Instead, he was released, and lived quite a few years after his release in freedom.
His story was covered on 60 Minutes, and is the story that led to Bryan Stevenson’s more visible career.
(Read the brief account of the story on the web site of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson’s organization. And you can read the Wikipedia article for Walter McMillan here).
But, Walter McMillan’s is not the only story in the book. Just Mercy is prompted by many injustices.
These are the reasons I listed in my synopsis as to why this book is worth out time:
#1 – Just Mercy captures the injustice of wrongful incarceration, and wrongful sentencing practices.
#2 – Just Mercy reminds us that the plight of the poor, and the practice of ongoing racism, require our constant attention.
#3 – Just Mercy reminds us that there are many ways racism has been (is being) practiced.
#4 — Just Mercy reminds us of the centrality of hope.
Here are just a few excerpts from his book:
“Bryan,” (a mentor/recruiter) said at some point during our short flight, “capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’ We can’t help people on death row without help from people like you.”
(after his first interaction with a death row inmate): I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. …In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.
This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.
I’d grown fond of quoting Václav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that “hope” was the one thing that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.
Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.
The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?
In the book, Mr. Stevenson lists four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice yet remain poorly understood.
#1 — The first, of course, is slavery.
#2 — This was followed by the reign of terror that shaped the lives of people of color following the collapse of Reconstruction until World War II.
#3 — The third institution, “Jim Crow,” is the legalized racial segregation and suppression of basic rights that defined the American apartheid era.
#4 — The fourth institution is mass incarceration.
And here are my lessons and takeaways from the book
#1 – In some instances (too many instances), “justice” is denied because of racism.
#2 – In some instances, justice is denied because of shoddy police work. And, even, dishonest and wrongful police work.
#3 – It takes a hard-working social justice champion, with a talented team, to make progress. The progress will not happen on its own.
#4 – We have too much incarceration; too many incarcerated; and too many wrongfully incarcerated. Innocent people are incarcerated. And punishment is too harsh and too long for many specific crimes.
#5 – And, the profit motive is part of this problem (for-profit prisons).
I read more books on business (I present many of these at the First Friday Book Synopsis) than I do books on social justice. But the books on social justice are the ones more likely to shake my soul… This book did just that.
(For next month’s Urban Engagement Book Club on March 17, I will present Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you are in the Dallas area on March 17, come join us. The details, and the year’s schedule of books, are in this blog post: Here are the 2016 Book Selections for the Urban Engagement Book Club – each third Thursday of 2016.