“… the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption chronicles the founding, growth, and work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is “a private, nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.” (EJI website).
Its Executive Director since the founding of EJI in the late 1980s, Bryan Stevenson wrote Just Mercy to bring readers close to the issues of mass incarceration and the injustices of a broken criminal justice system that condemns children, the mentally ill, non-violent offenders, and wrongly accused to death from life imprisonment or capital punishment.
Just Mercy centers around the case of Walter McMillan, a black man sentenced to death in 1987 for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison. Walter was sent to Alabama’s death row before the trial even took place. He would spend six years on death row, before Bryan Stevenson and his team at EJI was able to convince the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals that McMillan had been wrongly convicted. That he was innocent was not in doubt—dozens had tried to testify his whereabouts at the time of the murder; the man who claimed he and McMillan had murdered the young woman recanted his testimony several times; the law enforcement and legal system was blatantly corrupt and racist. But Walter McMillan’s story serves as a representative tale of how the American criminal justice system is still mired in Jim Crow, a massive complex rooted in policies of mass incarceration and structural poverty and racial injustice.
Intertwined with the chapters of Walter McMillan’s story are the cases of men, women, and children around the country that EJI took on, seeking to save lives and reform laws by advocating for the marginalized and broken.
Stevenson posits that there are “four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice, but remain poorly understood”: slavery; the reign of terror which followed Reconstruction through WWII, during which African-Americans were re-enslaved, lynched, and brutalized; the evolution of Jim Crow, which legalized racial discrimination; and mass incarceration—a deliberate American legal, political, and law enforcement policy, chronicled in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Just Mercy is devastating, but as the title suggests, it is not without hope, grace, mercy and compassion, for these are the very qualities that compelled a group of young people, with inadequate funding, staff, and experience, to fight for the most hopeless and forgotten of our society. It is a coming-of-age memoir of a social justice champion.
EJI grew from a staff of two at its founding to more than forty today; Bryan Stevenson is the recipient of multiple honors, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, and has tried several cases before the United States Supreme Court; EJI has saved dozens of lives and continues to call for the abolition of the death penalty and draw attention to the ills of a criminal justice system that punishes the poor, people of color, children, and the mentally ill and disabled at rates vastly disproportionate to that of the wealthy and white.
…the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
I implore you to read this inspiring, powerful story. It belongs to us all.