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Bryan Stevenson writes about his work in Just Mercy. He was raised in a working class African American family. At the age of 16 his grandfather was murdered by kids trying to steal his television. Stevenson did not let this bring him down. He went on to become an attorney with a degree from Harvard Law School. He then went to Georgia to work for the Southern Center for Human Rights and then on to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Initiative. This is where Stevenson writes about the most of the work he has done for prisoners on death row, fighting the death penalty and life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, and confronted abuse of the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped and children in prison. Just Mercy is an easy read to dive into. The stories that are told within the book are captivating, and can ultimately change the way the justice system is thought of.
Stevenson addresses many issues that came up within his work for the Equal Justice Initiative. He discusses the flaws within the justice system, and the unfairness when it comes to civil rights. One case of his that he discusses in the book that he is extremely proud of is the case of Walter McMillian. Walter McMillian was a man convicted of murdering a girl on testimonies that were fabricated and almost hard for anyone to believe. Despite having alibi witnesses, including an officer, that placed him eleven miles from the scene of the crime, he was still convicted and was places on death row prior to being convicted. The jury in his case found him guilty and ruled for life in prison. However, Judge Robert E. Lee Key overrode the jury’s recommendation and sentenced McMillian to Death. Stevenson could not believe that a jury would find McMillian guilty on such a preposterous fabrication of evidence.
Stevenson fought hard to get the conviction overturned and to get a new trial, but ultimately kept getting turned down. He finally turned to a last resort. Stevenson went on “60 Minutes,” and they aired a segment on Walter McMillian’s case in 1992. Three months after the segment aired, Alabama court of Appeals granted McMillian a new trial. A few days after a new trial was granted, the prosecution dropped the charges against McMillian. Had Stevenson gave up his fight for McMillian after the many devastating denials, and not gone to “60 Minutes” an innocent man would have been killed.
The McMillian case raises many criminal justice questions. It raises questions about the ethics of the police officers involved in the case. They pushed and fabricated testimonies to put an innocent man on death row. It can make people wonder, if there is a murder case, where the public is putting pressure on the police to make an arrest, would all officers violate their ethics and lie just to put someone behind bars for the murder, even if they are innocent? The officers got one suspect they could easily put the blame on for the murder and fabricated evidence to put him away mainly to satisfy the community.
The McMillian case also raised procedural questions. The officers put McMillian on death row before he had even been convicted. This is not procedure, and it raises the question, why would they go about this case this way? It also raises policy questions with the judge overruling the jury’s decision and giving McMillian the death penalty. It is legal in Alabama for the judge to do that, however it is rare for it to happen. McMillian had faith during his trial that he would be found innocent because he was, and he had witnesses to prove where he was at the time. He did not think anyone could believe the lies that were being told to convict him. The whole justice system in the McMillian case was flawed and it failed to protect an innocent man from getting put in jail, and it almost causes an innocent man to be put to death.
The McMillian case should have been handled differently from the beginning. If it had, then Stevenson probably would have never had to of been involved. If law enforcement had done its job, then McMillian would have never been convicted. If the prosecution would have done what was right, then he probably would not have been convicted. If his first defense team had done a better job of discrediting the witnesses and breaking down the prosecution’s case, then McMillian may have not been convicted. When Stevenson went to the new prosecutor about the case, the prosecutor should have seen what went wrong with the McMillian case, and should have worked with Stevenson. Many things about this case should have been done different. The only thing that seemed to have been done right was Stevenson’s fight for McMillian.
Stevenson had many victories like McMillian, but he also had many defeats as well. One in particular that is talked about is Michael Lindsey. He was sent to death row for murdering a white woman. Lindsey was African American. When the victim is white and the person who committed the crime is black, they tend to get harsher sentences than if their races were reversed. Like McMillians case, Lindsey’s jury recommended a life sentence, but the judge overruled and sentenced him to death instead. Stevenson fought for clemency for Lindsey because the jury had wanted him to live, but he was denied and Lindsey got the chair. Despite Stevenson’s defeats, he still fought against the issue of the death penalty.
Along with the McMillian and Lindsey case, Stevenson also fought for other clients. One focus of his was understanding adolescents to committed crimes. He represented many clients that were in prison for crimes they had committed when they were juveniles and he would challenge their sentences. There are many different cases that Stevenson discusses in Just Mercy about people who were convicted to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.
One case in particular is the case of Trina Garnett, where a girl was sentenced to life in prison for a crime she committed at fourteen. Trina had a life full of trauma before the crime, and afterwards there was nothing but more trauma. She was mentally unstable due to the trauma, but was still forced to stand trial and was forced to be tried as an adult for second degree murder. (Just Mercy pg. 148-151). This case was not handled the way it should have been. Trina’s court appointed attorney did not bring up her mental state during the trial, and did nothing to keep her from being tried as an adult. She was sentenced to an adult prison, and was raped while in prison, and head her child that she became pregnant with because of the rape, taken from her. Her mental state deteriorated. (Just Mercy pg. 148-151).
Trina is one of the many children who were sentenced to life in prison who had a mental issue, and were abused. Children, and mentally ill prisoners being abused in prison was one of the core issues brought up by Stevenson in Just Mercy. Stevenson addresses these issues by showing examples in his book and provoking feeling out of the reader. Reading some of the examples of children like Trina, made me want to help change the way the system works and make a difference. Children, even if they committed a crime, should not be sent to adult prisons where they are at risk for abuse. When they are sent to adult prisons, they are sometimes put in solitary confinement, which is meant for punishment in prison, not for children who are scared. This was the case for one child Stevenson discusses, Ian Manuel, (Just Mercy, pg. 151-154) who was convicted at age thirteen and sentenced to life in prison and sent to an adult prison. He spent eighteen years, uninterrupted in solitary confinement for his “safety” from adult prisoners. (Just Mercy, pg. 151-154). Imagine the mental state this child was in being confined for eighteen years with little human contact. This happens to many children who are sent to adult prisons, and if they are not in solitary confinement, they are at risk for abuse from the adult prisoners.
When it comes to the issues of children in adult prisons, I believe something needs to be done. Stevenson addresses these issues in his work he does for prisoners that are behind bars for crimes they committed as juveniles. “the incongruity of not allowing children to smoke, drink, vote . . . because of their well-recognized lack of maturing and judgment while simultaneously treating some of the most at-risk, neglected, and impaired children exactly the same as full-grown adults in the criminal justice system.” (Stevenson). This quote by Stevenson explains his views on children in adult prisons perfectly. Why do we treat children the same way as adults when it comes to the criminal justice system?
Out of all the issues addressed in Just Mercy the worst is the abuse of children and the mentally ill in prison. This has gone on as long as children have been able to be sentenced to adult prisons. Not much is done to protect these children or the mentally disabled. The way juveniles are tried in court is one thing that needs to change. The procedures for children who commit violent crimes needs to be reevaluated. Many of Alabama’s policies need to be improved. Out of all the states that still allow the death penalty, only Alabama and Florida give the judge the right to override the jury’s decision and recommend the death penalty. These types of policies need to be changed.
Overall Just Mercy addresses many issues through Stevenson’s work. Stevenson shows how he is fighting for civil and human rights of the prisoners in Alabama and for the policies that need changing. With people like Stevenson working to change the way the system is, the system in Alabama is slowly improving. The Equal Justice Initiative has made a difference in Alabama and will continue to make a difference with Stevenson.
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