Just Mercy Summary

Just Mercy is a memoir by lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson that details his advocacy for life-sentence and death row convicts.

  • After an encounter with a prisoner on death row at age twenty-three, Stevenson becomes passionate about correcting the deep flaws he sees in the system.
  • Stevenson notes that the criminal justice system is not actually aimed at reform, but rather at revenge. It moves too quickly, often precluding fair outcomes, and disproportionately punishes poor and Black individuals.
  • Stevenson founds the Equal Justice Initiative to support equitable mercy for all.

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Last Updated on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1233

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Just Mercy (2014) is lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about his work advocating for the rights of convicts, who have been marginalized by a biased, punitive justice system. At the start of the memoir, Stevenson is a twenty-three-year-old law student, interning with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), a non-profit in Georgia that provides free legal aid to convicts. Up to this point, the study of law has seemed cool and distant to Stevenson, until an encounter with a death row prisoner brings “everything . . . into focus.”

Stevenson has been assigned to give some news personally to the prisoner, a young Black man like Stevenson, and identified only as Henry. When Stevenson tells Henry he will not be executed in the current year, he is overjoyed. Henry’s enthusiasm, his friendliness, the way the prison guard sadistically tightens Henry’s manacles while hauling him away, and the hymn Henry breaks out into as an act of resistance have a profound effect on Stevenson.

In a moment of epiphany, Stevenson grasps both Henry’s humanity and the judicial system’s attempts to dehumanize him. From that moment, Stevenson is committed to “understanding and helping” death row and life-term prisoners in the Deep South, where incarceration rates are among the highest in the United States. Through Just Mercy, Stevenson illustrates the flaws of jurisprudence in America, thus making a case for advocating for those crushed by the state’s machinery. To achieve the enormous scope of his assignment, Stevenson arranges his narrative around two parallel threads: the trial of Alabama death row inmate Walter McMillian, and the cases of his other clients.

Stevenson peppers the main narrative threads with statistics, trends, and incisive sociopolitical analysis to make three important observations about the justice system: one, that it is aimed toward retribution rather than social reform; two, getting quick, final outcomes matters more than fair trials; and three, the system is loaded against the poor and minorities, especially Blacks, even before charges are framed. Early in the memoir, Steve Bright, his mentor at the SPDC, tells Stevenson the somber truth:

Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.

Stevenson’s view that inequality not only pervades but actually props up the justice system is also informed by his own experiences as a Black man. With many of his clients being poor and Black, Stevenson traces a direct continuum between the racial segregation laws of the Jim Crow era to present-day jails disproportionately crowded with minority inmates. For instance, Stevenson notes that one in three African American males born in the twentieth century will face incarceration. Walter McMillian is one such example of the systemic bias against Black people.

Stevenson meets McMillian in 1987, four years after he has come to work full-time for the SPDC. McMillian is on death row for the murder of eighteen-year-old Ronda Morrison in Monroeville, Alabama, which is ironically the hometown of the author Harper Lee, who created one of literature’s most upright lawyers in Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, the actual lawyers and judges working the courts of Alabama are a far cry from Atticus Finch. For instance, even before Stevenson meets McMillian, the trial judge who overrode the jury’s life sentence with the death penalty warns Stevenson from taking up his case, since McMillian is a known troublemaker, a member of the “Dixie Mafia.” Yet, when Stevenson finally meets McMillian, he encounters not a mafia member but an older, anxious Black man insistent on his innocence.

Stevenson soon learns the evidence against McMillian is flimsy, save for the highly unreliable testimony of Ralph Myers, a disturbed white man with a habit of grandiosity. Though Myers claims he and McMillian committed the murder together, Myers has never even met McMillian. Myers is connected to McMillian only through his girlfriend, Karen Kelley, a married white woman with whom McMillian was briefly involved. Thus, it is the interracial affair which damns McMillian’s reputation and makes him an easy scapegoat for a community out to avenge the murder of a daughter. So great is the impetus to try McMillian for the crime that Monroe County produces another false witness, Bill Hooks, to testify against McMillian. Further, even after Myers recants his testimony against McMillian, Monroeville’s police sheriff, Thomas Tate, goes on to frame charges against both him and McMillian. In a break from protocol, Tate places both Myers and McMillian on death row while they are still pre-trial. From this point, McMillian's death sentence is inevitable.

Tired of shuttling between Georgia and Alabama, where McMillian is lodged, Stevenson moves to Alabama to open his own practice with colleague Eva Ansley, planting the seeds for the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Stevenson and Ansley’s initial appeals in Alabama for death row prisoners Michael Lindsey, Horace Dunkins, and Herbert Richardson fail to stay the executions, but this only strengthens their resolve for advocacy.

One of the most significant points Stevenson makes is that often incarcerations and death sentences are a symptom of society’s larger tendency to demonize and label offenders. For example, the sensationalism around the stereotype of “dangerous mothers” leads rural Alabama woman Marsha Colbey to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole on the false charges of murdering her baby, who in fact was stillborn. Thus, creating an imaginary, demonic “other” and then purging society of this other seem to be the unfortunate drivers of jurisprudence. It is against such punitive ideas that Stevenson moves to secure justice for McMillian.

Though McMillian’s family and friends are eyewitnesses to his presence at a family “fish fry” during the time of Ronda’s murder, their accounts are not taken seriously. Stevenson’s attempts to call a retrial are thwarted at every turn. Stevenson and Avery often receive bomb threats. When a potential witness, Darnell Houston, wants to testify in favor of McMillian, he is threatened with perjury by law officials and thus forced away from the case. However, Stevenson presses on and manages to be granted Petition 32, which allows the EJI team access to police files on McMillian’s case and eventually win McMillian a brief three-day retrial. In a stroke of luck, by this time Myers is ready to tell the whole truth about McMillan’s innocence in court. A higher appeal process sees McMillian's case shifted to a new trial, as well as fresh investigations by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI). With the ABI agents submitting a report clearing McMillian, the county finally exonerates him.

However, the victory is bittersweet, with McMillian finding it difficult to reintegrate into a hostile larger community. Meanwhile, despite the EJI’s successes, the case files keep piling up in their office. Late in the memoir, Stevenson breaks down one night, frustrated by the enormity of his task. It takes an encounter with an elderly Black woman in a courthouse to remind him of the worth of his work—which is to uphold the principle of “just mercy.” Here, the complete meaning of the title is revealed, which is not “only mercy” but also an equitable mercy that transforms the receiver and the giver alike. The woman often visits trials to lend support to the accused because she is pained for the boys who were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of her grandson. It is the just mercy of people like her which gives Stevenson hope.

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