Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014.
[NOTE: As I’ve mentioned before, when I took over a course on the Modern American Civil Rights Movement a number of years ago at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), I found myself mired in the Age of Jim Crow. It seemed to me important to show my students the context within which the Civil Rights Movement grew, if they were to grasp the significance of the efforts by The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. And then I retired.
Several years later, in 2016, my church adopted Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, for our mid-week Lenten program. The idea was that, by wrestling with Stevenson’s book, we would get an up-close and personal view of the need for “redemption” in our criminal justice system. The problem was that, for our participants, there was no consensus. Still, reading and discussing Stevenson’s work was an interesting, stimulating exercise.]
* * * * *
More than thirty years ago, in 1983, Bryan Stevenson, a twenty-three year-old student at Harvard Law School, met his first condemned man at a prison near Jackson, Georgia, as an intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta. This initial meeting, Stevenson recalled, forced him to recognize that he had “been struggling [his] whole life with the question of how and why people [caught up in the throes of the law] are treated unfairly.” (13) Moreover, wrestling with this issue, Stevenson concluded that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” which became his mantra over the rest of his career, but proved to be a stumbling block for perhaps half of the people in my study group.
Stevenson had grown up in the segregated society on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula, in southern Delaware. (Full disclosure: I too am a native of Delaware, although the northern part.) Stevenson always remembered his grandmother’s advice that, if he were to understand something important, “You have to get close.” And that’s what he did, during a period when the prison population in the United States exploded from 300,000 to 2.3 million people, and when the United States was “the only country in the world that condemned children to life imprisonment without parole.” (15)
Early in his career, Stevenson had been hassled by the Atlanta Police Department, essentially for parking outside of his own apartment “while black.” Stevenson fought the charge, and, in the end, he received a sort of half-hearted apology from a deputy Atlanta police chief.
This incident convinced Stevenson that the time had come for him to open his own office in an effort to help prisoners on death row. Thus, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), in Montgomery, Alabama, was born; its star client was Walter McMillian.
* * * * *
Walter McMillian grew up near Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee and the setting for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Among McMillian’s “lady friends” was a white woman, Karen Kelly, who secured an ugly divorce from a white man by testifying that the African American McMillian had been her “friend.”
Thereafter, two white women, Ronda Morrison and Vicki Pittman, were murdered in Monroeville. Karen Kelly, along with her new white boyfriend, Ralph Myers, were implicated in the murders. Myers, whose best defense was his white skin, suddenly finding himself in jeopardy of being convicted of murder, “ratted out” Walter McMillian, who was tried, found guilty, and sent to death row.
It is Bryan Stevenson’s ultimately successful effort to free Walter McMillian from death row—and the in some ways depressing sequel to that accomplishment–that forms the unifying thread of this work. Moreover, by looking at numerous other cases in which he and the EJI were involved , Stevenson shows, in grim detail, that the system of “criminal justice” in the South, even as late as the 1990s, featured practices that were themselves little short of “criminal.”
* * * * *
McMillian’s family produced witnesses who claimed that he had been at a fish fry at the time of Ronda Morrison’s murder, but no one (white) believed them. In fact, one of the witnesses whose testimony furnished Walter with an alibi was arrested for “perjury.”
Walter’s appeal was denied, much to Bryan Stevenson’s chagrin. Next, he turned to convincing the Alabama courts that local police officials had paid a witness to implicate McMillian, and he uncovered other evidence supporting Walter’s innocence, but to no avail.
With his back to the wall, Stevenson threw a judicial “Hail Mary” pass, filing a “Rule 32 petition,” which allowed him “to present new evidence and obtain discovery, including access to the State’s files.” (143) This strategy gave him Ralph Myers’ recantation of his previous confession implicating McMillian, but Stevenson’s petition was rejected. Nevertheless, Stevenson pressed the ruling in the Alabama Court of Appeals; in the end, all charges were dropped, and Walter was freed.
* * * * *
Walter McMillian was released from prison in 1993. The publicity accompanying his release, and the circumstances of his arrest and incarceration in the first place, made him and his attorney, Bryan Stevenson, celebrities, and led to the Equal Justice Initiative being awarded the Olaf Palme International Human Rights Award by Sweden. (Stevenson subsequently received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his work with the EJI.)
McMillian was diagnosed with dementia after his release and began to go downhill, which raised questions about who would be responsible for his care. McMillian died on September 11, 2013. Speaking at Walter’s funeral, Bryan Stevenson argued that “the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question . . . is, Do we deserve to kill?” (313)
* * * * *
During the years Bryan Stevenson was fighting for Walter McMillian’s freedom and, then, trying to help him adjust to life outside of prison, lots of other cases were examined by the EJI, many of which sentenced children to life in prison, either for non-violent or violent crimes. Stevenson treats these cases in this book, though in less detail than his focus on McMillian.
In 2005, Stevenson and the EJI launched a campaign against the constitutionality of certain drugs used in executions in Alabama. These drugs had become hard to obtain legally, and state prisons had begun to acquire them illegally, which led to state drug raids on Alabama prisons!
Ultimately, between 2010 and 2012, Stevenson and the EJI won from the United States Supreme Court bans on sentences of life without parole for children convicted of both non-homicide and homicide crimes. In addition, the EJI established a program to help newly-freed clients who had been in prisons for decades re-enter society. Not surprisingly, Walter McMillian served as a role model here. More recently, the EJI has embarked on efforts to mark sites involved in both slave-trading and lynching throughout the South, once more focusing on recognizing those whose travails in the system of “Jim Crow Justice” formerly had been easiest to overlook.
* * * * *
Bryan Stevenson’s title, Just Mercy, puzzled me from the beginning. Did “just” mean “merely,” that is, the minimum that incarcerated prisoners should expect? Or did “Just Mercy” mean “mercy” that somehow was fair, as opposed to the usual punishments meted out in the name of mercy? In the end, Stevenson himself answered that question, arguing that, among other things, Walter McMillian had taught him that “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.” (314)
[EPILOGUE: Interestingly, during our Lenten study of Stevenson’s book, we also learned that his argument was still relevant to Georgia in 2016.
First, we read an article by R. Robin McDonald, “Personal Reflections Mark Ex-Justice and Prosecutor’s Death Penalty Debate,” Daily Report, February 29, 2016. In this piece, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Norman Fletcher debated the death penalty with Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter at the annual “Bar, Media, and Judiciary Conference” in Atlanta.
Justice Fletcher, who had been supportive of the death penalty during his term on the state supreme court (1989-2005), contended that, since his retirement, “It has been very hard for me to take every time there has been an execution in Georgia. . . . I have a terrible job in forgiving myself. It is a very, very tough burden to carry.”
But not so tough for District Attorney Danny Porter, who argued that the death penalty “is a valid punishment in a civilized society.” Moreover, Porter contended, the death penalty is the law in Georgia, so any district attorney who refuses to seek it “is in dereliction of his duty.”
And then there was a fascinating article by Brad Schrade and Jodie Fleischer, “Ga. man serves life despite DNA Questions,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 28, 2016, A-1, 25. The title of this piece pretty much summarizes it.
What was interesting to me was that much of Stevenson’s experience began in the 1980s, and his book was first published in 2014. And, for those in our group who worked in “law and order” professions (e.g., attorneys, judges, police officers), the article by Schrade and Fleischer could have been embarrassing, suggesting as it did that the “bad old days” of Jim Crow justice evidently had not yet ended in Georgia by 2016!
* * * * *
As a historian of the South, I found Stevenson’s chapter 16, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” most interesting. There, Stevenson laid out what he saw as the “four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood.” (299) These were: slavery, and what happened after its collapse, including what Stevenson refers to as “racial terrorism” (the Ku Klux Klan, etc.); convict leasing (see also Douglas Blackmon’s fine study, Slavery By Another Name); the southern system of “Jim Crow” segregation (see, for example, Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow); and mass incarceration of black men in southern prisons.
These also were the major influences that I emphasized when I taught my Civil Rights course at AFPS. I had become convinced that the accomplishments of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his associates in the Modern Civil Rights Movement could best be understood only after students fully grasped how awful—and how pervasive—“Jim Crow” actually was, which was why, in my one-semester course, I seldom got past Dr. King’s assassination. And, in Stevenson’s book, I learned that “Jim Crow Justice” lasted, at least in some southern states, for decades after the death of Dr. King.]
* * * * *
Compilation: “60 Minutes” interviews with Walter McMillian and Bryan Stevenson; ABC News account of McMillian’s release from death row; story by Swedish television about McMillian’s life after his release, featuring interviews with McMillian and Stevenson, which Stevenson cites in his book:
Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, Ala.:
Stevenson’s TED Talk, “We Need to Talk About An Injustice” (March 2012):
* * * * * *
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: