In these latter days, as politicians and pundits parse what is and is not American History and whose stories can and cannot be told, I was heartened to learn from my freshman son that he’d been assigned what can be a heart-breaking book to read in his first college literature class.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, published almost 10 years ago now, is a first-person journey through the racial and financial inequities baked into our justice system and into our history. It is written in a voice so impartial and even warm that it unobtrusively opens the reader to a tacit promise that in spite of our sins — criminal, historical, even those of omission — there remains potential for redemption.
In 1986, an 18-year-old white woman named Ronda Morrison was murdered during an attempted sexual assault at the dry cleaners where she worked in Monroeville, Alabama. The community was stunned, and the police got nowhere.
Six months later, a 45-year-old Black man named Walter McMillian was arrested for the crime. He had no criminal history and had worked for many people in town as a logger for years. His arrest occurred after a white woman he’d been having an affair with filed for a very messy, very public divorce from her husband.
McMillian was taken to death row by the local sheriff immediately after his arrest, 18 months before his trial, which lasted a day and a half. Multiple witnesses, all Black, testified that he had been at a church function 11 miles away during the time of the murder. He was convicted on the basis of coerced testimony from a white jail house informant, who later tried to recant. The trial judge overrode the jury’s verdict of life in prison and instead sentenced McMillian to death.
Bryan Stevenson was a Harvard law student the first time he visited death row as part of a summer internship program. It was in Alabama, which had the fastest growing condemned population in the country (at 100 prisoners) and the only state with no public defender system for them — “which meant that large numbers of death row prisoners had no legal representation of any kind,” he writes.
Stevenson took on McMillian’s case in 1986 and spent the next seven years working to exonerate him. That is the core of this book, but along the way Stevenson introduces us to some of the many, many other cases of wrongful convictions and inhumane punishments that he and his colleagues challenged — and the challenges of doing so as a Black attorney in the deep South.
“This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America,” he writes. “When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly hard and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel.”
Nor any practical effect, it would seem. We continue to struggle with the same problems while imprisoning 2.3 million people as of January 2023, the sixth highest per-capita rate in the world (down from No. 1 in 2013), and Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of whites.
What this book is NOT about is defunding the police, letting criminals run free, or shaming white people or the nation. It’s about life on the front lines for those people working to help the nation live up to its values and potential.
Stevenson describes sitting in an empty courtroom preparing to meet a jailed client before their first hearing together when the judge and district attorney emerge from chambers, laughing at some private joke. That is, until the judge spots Stevenson at the defense table, with his suit and tie and open briefcase. “Hey!” he shouts. “You can’t be in here! Get outside and wait for your lawyer!”
Stevenson stands up and introduces himself, politely saying he is the lawyer. The judge says “Oh,” and goes on his way. That’s called racial profiling, the same thing that gets unarmed Black people killed, and it’s even more insidious than it might seem.
At a different pretrial hearing, Stevenson argues against the exclusion of African Americans from a jury pool in a town where 25 percent of the population is Black. “The judge complained loudly,” he writes. “ ‘I’m going to grant your motion … but I’m pretty fed up with people always talking about minority rights. African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans … When is someone going to come to my courtroom and protect the rights of Confederate Americans?’ ”
Stevenson wants to ask whether that includes him, since he was born a Black man in the segregated South. Instead, he cofounded the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley in Montgomery in 1989 to provide legal representation for poor prisoners, and for anyone who may have been denied a fair trial.
By 2019, they had saved 125 men from the death penalty while filing appeals, overturning wrongful convictions, and working “to alleviate bias in the criminal justice system.” Stevenson then tells a chilling story about what “to alleviate bias” looks like.
He visits a prison that he’s entered many times to meet a new client and notices a pickup truck in the parking lot adorned with Confederate flags and other racist symbols. When he enters the office, a new guard asks him if he saw the truck. “I want you to know, that’s my truck,” he says, before subjecting Stevenson to a strip search — his first — and a slew of bureaucratic hassles before allowing him to see his client, a mentally ill Black prisoner more interested in getting a chocolate shake than getting treatment at a hospital.
Stevenson arranges a hearing but it’s in a distant city, requiring a three-day trip that will be supervised by the same guard. The guard transports and shadows the prisoner. Stevenson sees the guard in court every day, staring at him and listening to his testimony and that of the doctors Stevenson calls, as well as the state attorneys arguing against any change in the prisoner’s living conditions.
In the end, the motion is granted, but before he is moved Stevenson visits him one more time in the prison and is again stopped by the guard.
This time, the guard apologizes. Sitting in the courtroom, listening to the man talk and experts talk about him, the guard realized how little he understood the man’s situation — or his own. He and the man had a lot in common, he said. On the way back to prison, the guard stopped to buy him a chocolate shake.
As of this writing, Just Mercy has not made the no-fly lists of any school district I have found, but it has been banned from where it might do the most good: from prisons across the U.S. It joins the list of other distinguished authors, like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, and Barack Obama — all censored for security concerns.
How do such omissions further rehabilitation? Or redemption?
The book concludes with the end of Walter McMillian’s case. After six years of hearings and filings, Stevenson convinced the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals that McMillian’s conviction was unconstitutional. The Alabama Bureau of Investigation authenticated the evidence uncovered by Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, and determined that McMillian was innocent. The State of Alabama dropped the charges and released him from death row in March 1993.
Ronda Morrison’s murder remains unsolved.
This story was first published in Key Peninsula News.