Equal Justice

Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is a modern-day hero. 

 

He doesn't say so; I do, after reading about his crusade to fix many of the wrongs in the American "justice" system.  Stevenson is a compelling writer; I couldn't stop turning the pages.  The stories he tells will flabbergast you; some will horrify you.  He's been on a three-decade quest to make advances in:

  

". . .  assisting clients on death row;

        challenging excessive punishments;

        helping disabled prisoners;

        assisting children incarcerated in the adult system,; and

        looking at ways to expose racial bias, discrimination against the poor, and the  

                 abuse of power."

 

The pivotal story follows the case of Walter McMillian, a middle-aged black man who owned his own business and was liked and respected in his community,  his major crime was that, in Alabama in the mid-80s, he began an affair with a married white woman.  It didn't take long for local crime officials to gather false witnesses and fake evidence, and rig the media and the jury to convict him of the murder of a local teenager from a family who were leaders in the white community.

 

although Walter was at a day-long family event, and had dozens of witnesses to the fact that he was there all day on the day of the murder -- evidence that was not introduced into the trial proceedings -- it did not take the jury long to find him guilty and sentence him to death. 

 

Stevenson didn't become involved until Walter had already been on death row for several years.  At one point, he met with family members who had this to say:

 

"' . . . because we were standing next to him that whole morning. We know where he was.  We know what he was doing!' . . . 'Just about everybody in here was standing next to him, talking to him, laughing with him, eating with him.   The police come along months later, say he killed somebody miles away at the same time we were standing next to him. Then they take him away when you know it's a lie.' 

She was now struggling to speak. Her hands were trembling and the emotion in her voice was making it hard to get her words out. 'We were with him all day! What are we supposed to do, Mr. Stevenson? Tell us, what are we supposed to do with that? . . .

'I feel like I've been convicted . . . and they put me on death row too. What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm's way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain't do and send you to  death row? 

 

while Stevenson relates the saga of Walter and his years on death row and the years-long process to exonerate him, he also regales us with dozens of other cases he has worked on through the years -- stories that exemplify all manner of injustices played out against the disenfranchised in our country.

 

one reason for the upwardly-spiraling number of unjustly-incarcerated prisoners is:

 

"Prisoner 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 – – healthcare problems like drug addiction, poverty that had lead someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues . . .

 

Never before had so much lobbying money being spent to expand America's prison population, block sentencing reforms, create new crime categories, and sustain the fear and anger that fuel mass incarceration than during the last 25 years in the United States."

 

As I was reading this book, I serendipitously caught an episode of Elementary that touched upon this very subject.  (The video is a trailer for the episode.  If you get a chance, you should watch the whole thing.  It's illustrative.)

 

http://youtu.be/VbKDdOpN_ts 

"(Synopsis for  The Best Way Out Is Always Through)

When a judge is murdered supposedly by the woman he sentenced, Sherlock and Watson become involved in the interstate search to find the prime suspect, an escaped convict from a privatized prison.  . . . (They soon discover that) . . . things are not always as they seem."

 

In an earlier post,  I had referred to Lauren B. Davis' review,.  Judith D. Collins also has an excellent review with a good summarization of the main points of the book.

 

this book made my heart hurt.  But it also gives me hope, and it offers a way for me to take action.  I can contribute to the Equal Justive Initiatve, and you can be sure that I will be actively looking for other ways to become more involved.

 

"The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It's when  mercy is least expected that it's most potent – – strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to  aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration."