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

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.”

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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...

(The entire section contains 1233 words.)

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