17 June, 2015
The story of Bryan Stevenson reads like that of the literary references his book—Just Mercy—begins with. The front cover features an endorsement from legal thriller writer John Grisham and the first two-thirds of Stevenson’s book could be read and reviewed well in the Grisham genre. The through-story is that of Walter McMillan, a convicted killer on death row in Alabama, a story of murder, injustice, racism, imprisonment, and—ultimately—justice and hope.
The other literary reference is connected to the town in which the crime and the injustice were committed—Monroeville, Alabama, hometown of Harper Lee and her famous novel of racism and injustice, To Kill a Mockingbird. Using many smaller stories and client histories, Just Mercy describes how little has changed since the time of Lee’s novel, or rather how much rates of incarceration and injustice have increased.
This was the setting in which Stevenson unwittingly found himself as a somewhat directionless law student—albeit at Harvard University—who signed up to work for a few weeks with Southern Prisoners Defence Committee and was sent to meet a prisoner on Georgia’s death row. This encounter changed his life and, as a young lawyer, he began his own non-profit centre to advocate for prisoners on death row across the American south. This became the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and has expanded to work for overturn other unjust convictions and to force significant legal changes in the treatment of disabled and child offenders. Stevenson continues as executive director of EJI and is also a professor of law at New York University.
Stevenson’s book is filled with stories and statistics from the United States criminal justice system and—as an Australian reader—while drawn in by his story-telling, it can be tempting to regard these as merely information about the problems of another nation (although, of course, we have similarly marginalised and unjustly treated groups in our society). But Stevenson’s personal engagement with these realities are more than that. His is an inspiring example of speaking up when those suffering injustice are not able to speak for themselves—or, at least, whose voices will not be heard by those in positions of power who steadfastly refuse to hear them.
In Just Mercy, Stevenson himself is a humble hero. There are victories, celebrations and some significant but slow progress over 30 years but he also shares his fears, failures and struggles. The later sections of the book contain more reflection and, as such, the climax of the book is more personal and circumspect. Set against the backdrop of an execution he was unable to halt or defer, he confesses of the brokenness that each of us share as fellow human beings.
“You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it,” he writes. But this recognition brings a choice, he urges, “We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, foreswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
This is where he conflates the twin ideals of justice and mercy—justice as a baseline, but mercy in seeking treatment better than deserved. Stevenson’s faith is a significant part of this understanding, and a vital part of his work and the stories he shares. Which makes Just Mercy so much more than a gripping legal tale of injustice and justice, offering inspiration and insights into working for justice in whatever place we are and with whatever resources we might have.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing.
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2014, hardcover, 337 pages.