Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

“… 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.

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The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld’s extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone’s hands, saying, “You must read this. You simply must.” It’s been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops–another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison’s most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy’s wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York’s attorneys, she is delving into the condemned’s life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York’s execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it’s caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity’s darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society’s nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics’ best of lists. It damn well better be.

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