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It’s hard to know what words to use to praise a book like Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.  It’s not a book we can say we “enjoy” since it brings no joy, except to know there are people like Stevenson in the world. What it brings is revelation — of human cruelty under the guise of “rule of law,” repeatedly, and suffered overwhelmingly by those with few connections to the world where laws are made and enforced, and of little money; in short, the poor, who are in the United States, strongly marked by race and ethnicity.

Books Just MercyTo say that the reader will be “deeply informed” or “enraged” or “moved” doesn’t quite get at the impact of the book, which is any case is two-fold. The initial response, while reading of injustice so egregious, and involving so many “officers of the law”, may well be nausea, of a belief unsettled:  This cannot be happening here! And yet the stories of the human dedication to finding and taking on cases involving the abused and incarcerated (initially concentrating on death row inmates in Alabama), of listening to them –not only factually but humanly–, of doing the research, the interviews and re-interviews, of demanding attention from overwhelmed and often unconcerned court systems to (at least partially) reverse the injustice,  make us proud to have species mates like these.  We want to award prizes and send medals, bequeath money; if we were young and empathy ruled our constitutions we would join Stevenson at his Equal Justice Institute.

Just Mercy is about Stevenson’s struggle against legal corruption, both structural and personal,  particularly in cases involving the death penalty, made real and urgent with stories of men on death row, of children locked up for life, of women doing hard time.  The backbone story is of Walter McMillan, a man who spent six years on Alabama’s death row for a crime he was nowhere near.  Interrupted by other, shorter stories, the  legal efforts to show perjury and cover-up, occasional necessary and useful historical asides ( “The fear of interracial sex and marriage have deep roots in the United States.) the book builds in good police procedural style.  We know McMillan is innocent, but are unsure Stevenson will be able to convince the authorities.  The tension builds, towards likely death in the electric chair.  The script for a movie writes itself.

Not only does Stevenson pursue witnesses, persuade perjurers to recant testimony, give warm and  personal support to McMillan on death row but his family outside, he also takes on other cases, almost as fast as they came into his bare-bones office.  Initially staffed by just himself and one other, the Equal Justice Institute over the years grown into a formidable legal firm of some 40 lawyers and support staff. Stevenson himself has argued before the Supreme Court 5 times, and is recently responsible for rulings that imprisoning a child for life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment.

Though we are kept attentive by not knowing McMillan’s fate, and by steady revelations of other cases of inequality before the law, it is also a memoir with personal, sometimes too detailed, entries — who he met on what day, in what jurisdiction, with what titles.  Being a memoir it is necessarily filled with “I did this,” “I did that,” “they said to me,” “I felt such and such.”  There’s no good way around it, I suppose.

The seriousness of what he tells us, however, the time and thought he devotes to his clients (he seems not to have any personal time or relationships) and the success of his work keeps the memoir from sliding into self-congratulations … though, as his firm grew there must have been credit and valuable stories to spread around to others. How a dedicated individual moves from personal odyssey to institutional powerhouse would have been a good trajectory to take.  The world needs incredible path-breakers but without converting solitary effort into powerful institutional Archimedes levers good work will be submerged in the business-as-usual of the world.  Stevenson did this; he just didn’t tell us about it.

There were phrases and description that might have been toughened up to reflect the brutality of what he, and his clients, experience.  Sometimes locution and vocabulary are of a man younger and more naive, or perhaps more detached, than Stevenson must really be, and the contrast distracts.

Even as we read and wait to know if McMillan will be executed or released, lines from others reveal a world most of us have no idea of.   On his first visit to death row, not yet a lawyer, and apologetic for his lack of experience, the prisoner overwhelmed him:

“You are the first person I’ve met in over two years after coming to death row who is not another death row prisoner or death row guard.  I’m so glad you’re here, and I’m so glad to get this news! [Not that he wouldn’t be executed but that no date would be set for a year.]

Another prisoner, Ian, imprisoned as a child, begs for copies of some photos taken of him for a EJI report.

“As you know, I’ve been in solitary confinement approx 14.5 years.  It’s like the system has buried me alive and I’m dead to the outside world.  Those photos mean so much to me right now.  All I have is $1.75 in my inmate account right now.  If I send you $1.00 of that, how many photos will that purchase me?   I don’t know how to make you feel the emotion and importance of those photos, but to be real, I want to show the world I’m alive!  I want to look at those photos and feel alive!  It would really help with my pain…”

A friend who had heard Stevenson speak at a writers’ conference brought him, and his remarkable book, to my attention.  She has been a lawyer for her working life, and has seen the insides of many courtrooms, tens of thousands of pages of testimony, has conducted hour after hour of interviews.  “This will knock you out,” she said.

It did.

The Electric Chair, Sing Sing Prison, 1953

The Electric Chair, Sing Sing Prison, 1953

Bryan Stevenson: The Book

Stevenson himself reads his book for Audible.  

NY Times Review, Oct 17, 2014