Thursday 14 January 2016

Just Mercy - A Review

Well, we are two weeks into January and I am already woefully behind on posting reviews

This is my first review this year and it was my transitional book ... started in 2015 and finished in 2016.  And, may I say it was a hell of a way to start off the new year of reading!

JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson

After reading this book it occurred to me that had someone recommended “Just Mercy” to me as a riveting legal thriller I would have believed them … it is THAT well written.  It is a compelling; page turning read yet sadly, every story in this book was true - lived by those unfairly sentenced and by the author trying to rectify the miscarriages of justice.

“Justice is for those who can afford to pay for it”

In 1986 Walter McMillian was accused of killing 16-year-old Rhonda Morrison in the back of a dry-cleaning store in Munroeville, Alabama.  Three witnesses testified against him at trial, while six black witnesses testified that he was at a church fish-fry at the time of the murder.  Walter McMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He was on death row for six years before Bryan Stevenson took on his case and discovered that Mr. McMillian was indeed at the fish-fry and could in no way have committed the crime.

“One of the really bizarre parts of this whole case for me was this whole episode took place in Monroeville, Ala., where Harper Lee grew up and wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. If you go to Monroeville, you'll see a community that's completely enchanted by that story. ... They have all of this To Kill a Mockingbird memorabilia. The leading citizens enact a play about the book. You can't go anywhere without encountering some aspect of that story made real in that community.

And yet, when we were trying to get the community to do something about an innocent African-American man wrongly convicted, there was this indifference —
and, in some quarters, hostility.”

Walter McMillian’s story is the main focus of “Just Mercy”, however in his role as the founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Mr. Stevenson has sought to overturn not only wrongful convictions but unjust convictions as well.  These stories comprise most of the rest of the book. 

Trina was a fourteen-year-old girl when she was accused of and tried for murder.  Trina’s lawyer, at the time, never challenged the decision to try Trina as an adult.  He was subsequently disbarred and jailed for unrelated criminal misconduct.  Trina was forced to stand trial for second-degree murder as an adult.  Francis Newsome, also involved in the crime, testified against Trina in exchange for the charges against her being dropped, and the 14-year-old was convicted of second-degree murder.

“Delaware County Circuit Judge Howard Reed found that Trina had no intent to kill.  But under Pennsylvania law, the judge could not take the absence of intent into account during sentencing.  He could not consider Trina’s age, mental illness, poverty, the abuse she had suffered, or the tragic circumstance surrounding the fire.  Pennsylvania sentencing law was inflexible: For those convicted of second-degree murder, mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was the only sentence.  Judge Reed expressed serious misgivings about the sentence he was forced to impose.  ‘This is the saddest case I’ve ever seen,’ he wrote.  For a tragic crime committed at fourteen Trina was condemned to die in prison.

Not long after she arrived at prison a male correctional officer pulled her into a secluded 
area and raped her.

The crime was discovered when Trina became pregnant.  As is often the case, the correctional officer was fired but not criminally prosecuted.

In 2014, Trina turned fifty-two.  She had been in prison for thirty-eight years.”

Trina’s story is not the only one.  Mr. Stevenson also recounts the story of a young man, convicted at 13 years of age and held in solitary confinement for more than fourteen years, allegedly for his own protection fearing he would be abused in general population.  Mr. Stevenson arranged to have photographs taken of the young man.  He was so moved because it was the first time since being sent to prison he had any human contact other than having meals passed to him.  In a letter to Mr. Stevenson he wrote, “As you know, I’ve been in solitary confinement approx. 14.5 years.  It’s like the system has buried me alive and I’m dead to the outside world … but today, just the simple handshakes we shared was a welcome addition to my sensory deprived life.”

In 2005, the Court recognized the difference between children and adults and required that children be exempt from the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.  Does it go far enough to ensure that children are not lost in the prison system?

Interspersed with these stories are some staggering statistics about incarceration in America.  Again, the book explains far better than I could ever paraphrase …

“Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days.  Prison growth and the resulting ‘prison-industrial complex’ – the business interests that capitalize on prison construction – made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem.  Incarceration became the answer to everything – health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison.  Never before had so much lobbying money been spent to expand America’s prison population, block sentencing reforms, create new crime categories, and sustain the fear and anger that fuel mass incarceration than during the last twenty-five years in the United States.

Prison for profit.  Frightening on so many levels.

While I have read several books on the subject of wrongful convictions and unjust sentencing practices (most recently the excellent book “Unfair” by Adam Benforado) this is the first I have read that so clearly and succinctly gives the statistics behind the prison system.  A heart breaking, and admittedly tear inducing, as the people’s stories were – the bare statistics were shocking.

I’m not of the mind that no one deserves to be punished.  Of course they do.  Because I live in Canada capital punishment is not on the table for sentencing at capital trials – I waver in my personal belief in some cases such as that of Paul Bernardo.

Mr. Stevenson, near the end of his very well-written and educational book poses an important question …

“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

“I worked in a broken system of justice.  My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism.  They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger.  I thought of Joe Sullivan and of Trina, Antonia, Ian, and dozens of other broken

children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison.  I though of people broken by war, like Herbert Richardson; people broken by poverty, like Marsha Colbey;

people broken by disability, like Avery Jenkins.  In their broken state, they were

 judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been

broken by cynicism, hopelessness and prejudice.”

“Enjoy” seems like the wrong word to describe a book like this, but I am very glad I read it.  It is important to know that no system of justice in infallible and that there are people like Bryan Stevenson out there who think it important enough to try and correct that … who go and do just that … and then take the time to make sure that the rest of understand it as well.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website)

BRYAN STEVENSON is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University School of Law. He has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court, and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color. He has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

For more information on child imprisonment, excessive punishment or any other topics discussed in this book visit and Mr. Stevenson also has a TED TALK and a video about “Sentencing Children to Die in Prison” posted on his website at

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