Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a memoir by attorney and author Bryan Stevenson, originally published in 2014 by Spiegel & Grau. The book became a New York Times best seller and was awarded both the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and the 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Nonfiction. In 2019, it was adapted into a film directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton.
In Just Mercy, Stevenson uses the case of Walter McMillian to expose racial injustice and corruption in the American legal system and highlight the need for reform. He tells the story of McMillian’s case, and he also brings into the story the cases of other people who suffered similar injustices. In doing so, he sheds light on court procedures and practices that have assaulted the freedoms of women, children, Black American men, and the mentally ill. Stevenson’s main argument is that mercy is the key to justice and that treating all human beings accused of crimes with dignity and respect is the only way we can ensure that our criminal justice system protects the rights and freedoms of the citizens it serves. Emphasizing the virtues of mercy and compassion, Stevenson states that
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure of unmerited grace.
Grace, in this context, refers to the Christian idea of divine assistance granted even to the supposedly undeserving. Stevenson’s words also call up the archaic meaning of grace, which is, in fact, mercy or pardon. He writes,
The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.
Stevenson shows that the current system of criminal justice protects the rich, even if they are guilty, and condemns the poor, even if they are innocent. Reflecting on this injustice, he says,
I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.
Stevenson also shows that fear and anger are pervasive in society and detrimental to justice. He argues that to treat people with dignity and show them mercy means to make an attempt to understand their circumstances in an effort to explain their behavior. For this reason, Stevenson includes in his book the personal stories of people who were victimized by the system. By telling their stories, he paints a picture of these people as human beings who have rights and privileges equal to those of any other human beings but whose lives and personal stories, in a system rife with racial prejudice, have been misinterpreted and misunderstood.