I’ve been wanting to write about Just Mercy since reading it several months ago, but trials and life (and working on my own book) have interfered. With the release of Anthony Ray Hinton from death row this past week, I am reminded of the amazing work that Bryan Stevenson does for each of his clients. His advocacy for systemic change through his speeches, teaching, and writing—including this book—encourages the arc of the moral universe to continue bending toward justice for all of our clients.
Anthony Ray Hinton was finally freed on April 3, 2015, after Stevenson had represented him for sixteen years. Stevenson said of Hinton’s case: “Race, poverty, inadequate legal assistance, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence conspired to create a textbook example of injustice.” Hinton spent nearly thirty years on death row for a murder he did not commit, (based on ballistics evidence that was later discredited, full case details here at EJI.org and interview with Mr. Hinton here). Stevenson writes of Hinton’s case in Just Mercy (at page 298: “I was increasingly desperate to find a way to get his case overturned”) and seeing the smiling photo of Hinton and Stevenson walking free, side by side, is particularly moving after reading the book.
Just Mercy is a hauntingly beautiful memoir that has won many well-deserved awards (listed here). Tracing his career, Stevenson describes feeling disconnected while at Harvard Law School until meeting Steve Bright. Ten years later, I felt the same law school disconnect until encountering the teaching of both Bright and Stevenson. After law school, Stevenson worked with Bright (and slept on his couch) for a few years prior to creating the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 in Montgomery, Alabama. In Just Mercy, Stevenson describes his advocacy for people in prison and on death row—most of whom are poor, black, and had abysmal trial representation.
At times, this book is so vivid and painful that I had to set it aside for several days before I could pick it up again. One example is the description of meeting Joe Sullivan in prison (p. 262). The wheelchair, the cage, the prison. I had to close the book for a while because it was so deeply disturbing.
But Stevenson’s gift is his hopefulness. As he describes the excruciating execution of his client, Jimmy Dill, he moves into his overarching theme of brokenness. He writes (at page 289): “But our brokenness is the also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”
This riff on brokenness recurs in his presentations and writing and resonates deeply if you too are drawn to this work. I first heard him speak when I was a law student in 1994. Other aspiring public defenders advised, “Drop everything and go if you get the chance to work for Bryan Stevenson–or to take his class, or to hear him speak.”
This was good advice. When I heard him speak, it was like Yo-Yo Ma playing my favorite Beatles songs on a cello inside my ribcage. He was already preaching the themes that weave through his speeches today: Each of us is more that the worst thing we have ever done. The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice. We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. The real question about the death penalty is not: does this person deserve to die? It is: do we as society deserve to kill this person?
Stevenson is unflinching, yet somehow he maintains a tone that is hopeful and– to use a word he often uses– energizing. It becomes clear why he was given a MacArthur Genius Award, and why he is said to have received the longest ever standing ovation for a TED talk (for his 2012 talk, “We need to talk about an injustice.”)
In Just Mercy, he writes (at p. 289): “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it.” All of us who advocate for the indigent in the criminal justice system know that constantly fighting a system that bullies broken people can make you feel that you will spontaneously combust from the frustration and fury of it all. Stevenson describes his own response to feeling discouraged: there is no time for that, there’s work to do. Simple as it is, this is a motivation that works: however beaten down you feel today, show up tomorrow to help one client and that will propel you forward.
This is a wonderful book to gift to people who are interested in understanding the motivations to work as a public defender. I gave it to my parents. My father speaks of it often, my mother was just talking about pulling quotes about liberation for Passover. I took my dad to hear Stevenson speak in February at a capital punishment seminar. In a giant packed auditorium, I heard hundreds of thick-skinned capital defenders quietly sniffled as Stevenson told his milkshake story, which he also tells in the book. I got teary even though I’ve heard the story several times. While providing an account of intolerable injustice, Stevenson’s gift is that he tells it in a way that makes us all feel re-energized to keep up the fight.