What is this about?: This is a memoir of justice, or rather injustice that came to Bryan Stevenson as a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative. One of those cases was Walter McMillian’s, but there were so many more.
What else is this about?: Injustice. Hope. And continuing to fight no matter what. It’s a reminder why Black Lives Matter matters and always will. Why children should not be sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 14 for something they didn’t do — and why as much as there are people in the justice system on both sides fight for justice, there are still a ton more like the ones in this book that make you want to scream.
A powerful, bold true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix America’s broken system of justice — from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.
The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 in the early 1970s to more than two million now. One in every 15 people is expected to go to prison. For black men, the most incarcerated group in America, this figure rises to one out of every three.
Bryan Stevenson grew up a member of a poor black community in the racially segregated South. He was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of the US’s criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young black man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, startling racial inequality, and legal brinkmanship — and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted lawyer’s coming of age, a moving portrait of the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice.
Just Mercy, the movie, is out here on 23 January and focuses on Walter McMillian’s case — he was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit despite the wealth of evidence that actually proved his innocence. And to be clear, the prosecutors, Sheriff and everyone who put him there knew he was innocent. They just didn’t care.
I can understand why his case was the focus of a movie, because the conspiracy behind Walter’s imprisonment is the kind… well, you’d only see in books or movies. Except it’s very, very real.
I admire Bryan Stevenson tremendously — and that trailer I linked to up there is accurate: he is a generation’s hero.
While the book is a memoir, it is also an education in everything you probably didn’t realise about the prison system, law and how alleged criminals are treated.
Most terrifying of all is the way children (from 13 to 14 years old) and people who with learning disabilities and PTSD are thrown in prison. When Bryan and the EJI began working to change the law regarding children, there were 2,500 children in the United States had been sentenced to life imprisonment — and not all were in prison because they committed homicide.
These are the cases that stick with me — three of his clients entered the prison system as children to live decades in solitary confinement because where else would you put a 14 year old convicted of an adult crime?
I appreciated too that the book delves into those cases where he failed, and his clients were killed, and yet he and EJI keep going. Stevenson doesn’t inject too much of himself beyond the cases into this, because this isn’t his story, it’s the story of the people who were wrongly put in prison.
This is why when he does admit that his fighting has broken him, and still he keeps going — I realised that is exactly why he’s the type of man who would keep taking on these battles. 2019 marks his and the EJI’s 30th anniversary.
Stevenson and everyone who works at the Equal Justice Initiative are heroes.
Just Mercy, the movie, is out in Australia on 23 January 2020.