Just Mercy Characters
The main characters in Just Mercy are Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillian.
- Bryan Stevenson, the author and narrator of Just Mercy, is a lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The memoir details Stevenson’s path from a twenty-three-year-old law student learning about the realities of the criminal justice system to the present day.
- Walter McMillian is a death row inmate in Alabama. He was falsely convicted of the murder of Ronda Morrison, but after six years on death row, Stevenson and the EJI are able to prove that the verdict in McMillian’s case was wrongful.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The narrator of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, is a Harvard-educated lawyer who fights for the rights of the accused, especially those with life sentences and on death row. Twenty-three years old at the beginning of the memoir, Stevenson goes on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), one of America’s most prominent nonprofit advocacy groups. Having grown up in a poor and racially segregated area in Delaware during the 1960s and 1970s, Stevenson has experienced racial inequality firsthand. Although he initially finds the study of law too theoretical, “everything comes into focus” for him when he interacts with death row prisoners during an internship. From there on, advocating for marginalized convicts in the Deep South becomes Stevenson’s lifelong passion.
Although frequently frustrated by the overwhelmingly biased attitudes of courts, judges, police officers, and prison guards, Stevenson never gives up on his calling, showing remarkable tenacity. Significantly, his work does not pay much, as is revealed in his struggle to even afford rent at the beginning of his career. As a Black man, he can also empathize with the fear law enforcement authorities inspire in minorities, leading them to act skittishly and get themselves incriminated at best and shot dead at worst. In an ugly but illuminating incident, Stevenson finds himself targeted by police officers in his own neighborhood, simply for the act of sitting in his car and listening to music. The dehumanizing, unapologetic way the officers treat him, as well as the open hostility of his white neighbors, brings home for Stevenson the context in which minorities suffer. Therefore, despite receiving frequent bomb threats, especially during the retrial of Walter McMillian, Stevenson knows he cannot afford to give up his quest for just mercy. Stevenson and the EJI secure justice for several incarcerated people, including those sentenced as juveniles.
Described erroneously by a judge as a member of the “Dixie mafia,” McMillian is actually a humble Black pulpwood trader, falsely accused of killing Ronda Morrison, a white eighteen-year-old college student. As a successful, sociable local business owner, McMillian, also known as “Johnny D,” is a pillar of the local Black community in Monroeville. He is described as being popular with all his customers, whether Black or white. However, Stevenson notes that McMillan’s biggest flaw is his promiscuity, which leads him to an affair with a married white woman, Karen Kelly. His association with Kelly enrages those in favor of anti-miscegenation laws and makes him an easy scapegoat on whom to pin the murder of Ronda Morrison. On death row, McMillian handles himself with grace, hopefulness, and humor. Although McMillan is released six years after his imprisonment with aid of the EJI, he is a changed man afterward and struggles to cope both financially and emotionally, revealing the extent of the trauma of his wrongful imprisonment. McMillian dies in 2013.
Karen Kelly is the married, younger white woman with whom Walter McMillian has an affair, which eventually leads to his demonization in Monroeville. After her relationship with McMillian, Kelley, who is traumatized by her husband making her affair public, forms a relationship with Ralph Myers. Both Kelly and Myers are convicted for killing another white woman, Vickie Pittman.
An unpredictable but not completely unsympathetic character, Ralph Myers is a petty criminal who is the chief witness against Walter McMillian during Ronda Morrison’s murder trial. Given to grandiosity and unusual in appearance, with his deep burn scars, Myers initially offers damning testimony against McMillian. Significantly, though Myers claims he and McMillian murdered Ronda Morrison together, he has never met McMillian. However, over...
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time, he not only recants his false testimony, he also proves a reliable witness in McMillian’s retrial.
The director of the SPDC, Bright is in his mid-thirties when Stevenson meets him, a “brilliant trial lawyer” with unflagging energy. Bright gives Stevenson room to stay when the younger man cannot afford rent and also displays a dark sense of humor about his line of work, informing Stevenson that capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment.
Identified only by his first name, Henry is the first death row prisoner Stevenson ever meets. Henry’s grace, friendliness, and above all, his small act of resistance—throwing back his head and singing a hymn as a prison guard manhandles him—have a profound impact on Stevenson.
Ansley is Stevenson’s colleague and one of the founding members of the EJI. Described by Stevenson as “fearless and smart,” Ansley is instrumental in running EJI’s operations on a shoestring budget, even managing to make “a few dollars trickle in,” from the early days of the nonprofit.
Though Chapman was not in office as district attorney when Walter McMillian was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Ronda Morrison, he tries to thwart Stevenson’s efforts to prove McMillian’s innocence. Thus, he represents the state’s desire to rigidly uphold the status quo.
Sheriff Thomas Tate
The police sheriff of Monroeville at the time of Ronda Morrison’s murder, Tate decides to arrest McMillian for the crime, based on Ralph Myers’s testimony. Tate reveals his deeply racist and bigoted outlook when he uses offensive slurs against McMillian while arresting him.
Bill Hooks is a dubious witness Monroe County produces in court during Walter McMillian’s trial. Although Hooks claims witnessing McMillian’s “low-rider truck” at the time and place of Ronda Morrison’s murder, it is later discovered that Hooks has been paid for his false testimony.
Robert E. Lee Key
The judge who sentences McMillian to death, Key makes a single appearance—via phone—in the memoir, but he is significant because he represents the inflexible, threatening aspect of a biased judicial system. Not only did Key earlier override a jury’s sentence of life imprisonment in favor of a death sentence, he also intimidates and warns Stevenson off representing “someone” like McMillian.
Identified by his first name, fourteen-year-old Charlie has been placed in adult county jail while awaiting trial for the murder of his mother’s violent, abusive boyfriend. When Stevenson learns that Charlie has been raped in prison several times, he successfully secures his transfer to a juvenile home. Eventually, the Jennings, a kind white couple, learn about Charlie from Stevenson and sponsor his college education.
A victim of the “dangerous mother” stereotype, Marsha Colbey is living in rural Alabama when she delivers a stillborn baby. After she buries the child, a neighbor calls the police, who arrest Colbey for infanticide. Despite a lack of evidence suggesting the baby’s death was a murder, the court sentences Colbey to a life sentence without parole. Stevenson advocates for Colbey and secures her release from prison.
One of Stevenson’s clients with a brutally abusive childhood, Garnett has been serving a life sentence without parole for thirty-eight years when Stevenson meets her. Sentenced at fourteen for culpable homicide, Garnett suffered immeasurable sexual and physical abuse as a child. Further abuse in prison has intensified her trauma. With the legal aid of Stevenson and the EJI, Garnett is finally released from prison at the age of fifty-two.
Jenkins is an intellectually disabled man who is sent to death row. His condition is so obvious that Stevenson is stunned he was sentenced to death. Stevenson’s advocacy eventually gets Jenkins taken off death row and placed in a mental health facility.