Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, has devoted his career and his life to pursuing redemption, justice, and equity for the downtrodden, wrongly accused, broken, vulnerable, and poor of America. One of Stevenson's very first cases was defending a young man named Walter McMillian who was wrongfully convicted of murder.

In his book Just Mercy, Stevenson appeals to his readers to consider the needs of humanity one person at a time while seeking empathy and mercy, not condemnation:

There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can't otherwise see; you hear things you can't otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.

In chapter six of his book, Stevenson recounts working with a small, thin, fourteen-year-old client named Charlie who killed his mother's abusive boyfriend, George. One night, after George had brutally hit Charlie’s mother and she lay on the ground unconscious and bleeding, Charlie thought she was dead. Charlie then shot George. While not condoning Charlie’s choice to pull the trigger, Stevenson believes that young prisoners still need a chance at mercy and redemption:

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve done.

Additionally, Stevenson argues that the US justice system must address unjust practices. In Charlie's situation, George was a police officer. So, lawyers fought to have Charlie tried as an adult for George’s murder. During his first few nights in jail, Charlie was badly abused and beaten by other inmates. Stevenson argues against such inhumane and unfair conditions.

Likewise, he shares that

only a handful of countries permitted the death penalty for children—and the United States was one of them. Many of my Alabama clients were on death row for crimes they were accused of committing when they were sixteen- or seventeen-year-old children.

Stevenson asks, “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

After fighting for Charlie to receive humane and equitable treatment as a juvenile, Stevenson made a lasting, positive impact upon Charlie:

I visited Charlie regularly, and in time he recovered. He was a smart, sensitive child who was tormented by what he’d done and what he’d been through.

At a talk I gave at a church months later, I spoke about Charlie and the plight of incarcerated children.

Stevenson encourages people to understand, not judge or condemn. He believes that society will heal and function much better if all people to seek to make a positive difference in others’ lives:

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.

He also writes,

The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

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