Book Review: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, © 2014, Bryan Stevenson, Spiegel & Grau, NY. Edition reviewed: Kindle $11.99 ISBN 978-0-8129-9453-7
NOTE: Since a movie based on this book is coming out (December 25th in “select theaters” and January 10th “everywhere”), I thought this is an appropriate time to post this review.
“Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”
That Reinhold Niebuhr quote is how Just Mercy begins.
The book is a memoir of Bryan Stevenson’s fight for justice in the criminal justice system on behalf of those unable to fight, or finance a fight, for themselves.
Mr. Stevenson relates that he was a philosophy major in college when, as a senior, it occurred to him that nobody was going to pay him to philosophize. He looked into graduate schools and decided on law school “mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn’t require you to know anything.” As a result, Mr. Stevenson attended Harvard Law School while dual majoring in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. Both degrees are evident in this memoir.
In his introduction, Mr. Stevenson explains that the book “is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.”
Among the most vulnerable that Mr. Stevenson discusses in this book are the poor, the juveniles sentenced either to death or life without parole, and blacks on death row because of bigotry. Sometimes the cases he talks about involved a defendant that fell into all three categories.
He uses one particular case, of an obviously innocent black man in Alabama sent to death row largely because of an extra-marital affair with a married white woman, to carry us through the book. Each chapter deals with either his work in trying to get this defendant freed or another issue that is a problem in the criminal justice system.
As those of you involved in criminal practice know, juveniles may no longer be sentenced to death or to life without parole (or as Stevenson states, “to die in prison”). What you may not know is that the two cases which prohibited life without parole for juveniles (one for non-homicides, and the next for homicides) were handled by Mr. Stevenson.
I found this memoir to be a fascinating exploration into the underbelly of the criminal justice system. I was able to relate because I once, during the last century, handled a post-verdict motion for a client in which I argued that, although the defendant did a lousy job representing himself, the Commonwealth had not presented enough evidence for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. To which a Montgomery County judge replied in open court, “the fact that your client is black makes it worse.” (Yes, I took the case on appeal pro bono, had the conviction reversed and then the charges dismissed when remanded.)
Mr. Stevenson also tackles the issue of over-incarceration in this country due to economic interests.
Between 1990 and 2005, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting ‘prison-industrial complex’ - the business interests that capitalize on prison construction - made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything - health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison.
Of course, we in Pennsylvania know the corruption that can occur. We are all familiar with the two juvenile court judges who were bribed by a private prison to send juveniles there rather than normal probation for offenses such as mocking a school principal, trespassing in a vacant building and shoplifting DVDs.
Anyone interested in criminal justice in this country, and in particular anyone practicing criminal law, will find this memoir hard to put down. I highly recommend it.
Bryan Stevenson, and people like him, deserve our thanks for making the criminal justice system a little less criminal and a little more just.