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 on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1229
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 the 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...
(The entire section contains 1229 words.)
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