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The #1 New York Times Best Seller Just Mercy, written by Bryan Stevenson, is a thrilling narrative about Bryan’s career as a lawyer and co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in the 1980s. This novel goes into Mr. Stevenson’s life story, from growing up poor, representing the poor in the South, and working with the falsely accused waiting on death row in Alabama. Though this is a tail of justice and redemption, this does not mean there are no problems that arise along the way.
To start, in Chapter 4: The Rugged Cross, an issue begins to make itself clear immediately. Bryan Stevenson and Eva Ansley had finally opened a non-profit law center for the men and women on death row in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This occured in February of 1989. The purpose of opening this organization was to serve those on death row with high quality legal services they needed for no charge. However, things quickly started going downhill. They began to quickly lose their staff, funding, and support. For example, the University of Alabama School of Law decided to pull away from their organization. This causes total devastation, “…where we had set up the office withdrew their support and promise of office space, and we discovered just how hard it was to find lawyers to come to Alabama and do full-time death penalty work for less than $25,000 a year”. Without funding, support, and staff, there is no way to successfully set up this organization and give proper services to the inmates. Therefore, as time went on and nothing changed, they decided to relocate to Montgomery, Alabama in hopes to get the Equal Justice Initiative the funds and requirements they needed. Post relocation and a few inmates later, an African-American Vietnam veteran named Herbert Richardson is introduced. Just like the others, he is on death row and his execution is only a mere thirty days away, and he refuses to give up hope. When he was being treated at a New York veteran’s hospital, he met a nurse who eventually became his girlfriend. However, after breaking up she moved to Alabama, and Mr. Richardson followed her there. He planted a bomb on her doorstep anticipating that she would go back to him for “protection”. Though the ex-girlfriend and Herbert were not injured, the young niece of the ex-girlfriend picked up the device and shook it, thinking it was a clock, and was killed. Thus, Herbert Richardson was charged for murder and was represented by a lawyer who brough up none of his war-induced mental illnesses and background. Since the lawyer stated none of this evidence, this caused the jury to look down on him even more. As Mr. Richardson was already seen as an outsider, the prosecutor sealed the deal with his final statement. In the courtroom, “…the prosecutor told the all-white jury in his closing argument that a conviction was appropriate because Herbert was “associated with the Black Muslims from New York City” and deserved no mercy”. His lawyer than denied his motion to appeal which caused Herbert’s immediate conviction and was put on death row eleven years later. There was no fair legal services provided to Mr. Richardson and also later singled out to be evil to an all-white jury because of it. The criminal justice system did not fairly execute Herbert Richardson’s rights and treatment.
Moreover, in Chapter 5: Of the Coming of John, the problems do not stop coming their way. In this chapter, the family gives more testimony on the case of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan. Mr. McMillan was an African-American pulpwood worker from Alabama who was wrongfully believed to be responsible for the murder of a young white women who was working at a laundromat as a clerk. As the McMillan family explains to Bryan why Walter could not have done this, he makes it his mission to give Walter justice. Later, Stevenson received a phone call from a young man named Darnell Houston who claimed he can prove that Mr. McMillan was innocent. Once they met in person to talk about the information Darnell had, Bryan wanted to use it to immediately appeal Walter. However, Bryan later gets a phone call from Darnell that he has been arrested and needs to be bailed out because he has been told he has committed perjury. Mr. Stevenson is immediately upset by the news because he knows it should not have happened. Bryan states how, “It was unheard of to indict someone for perjury without any investigation or compelling evidence to establish that a false statement had been made. Police and prosecutors found out that Darnell was talking to us and they decided to punish him for it”. It was an unruly intimidation tactic being used so they can go through with convicting Walter.
Finally, in Chapter 6: Surely Doomed, Bryan Stevenson talks on the phone with a grandmother, calling on Bryan to help her fourteen-year-old grandson Charlie. She explains to him how he has been put in jail for murder and she wanted Bryan’s help to save her grandson. He is unaware of how to respond to her since, “Only a handful of countries permitted the death penalty for children-and the United States was one of them. Many of my Alabama clients were on death row for crimes they were accused of committing when they were sixteen- or seventeen-year-old children…Alabama had more juveniles sentenced to death per capita than any other state-or any other country in the world”(Stevenson, 2014, p. 115). Knowing this fact and understanding that Charlie would not be facing the death penalty, more likely life imprisonment, due to the Supreme Court ruling the death penalty to be barred for juveniles under fifteen, he does not take the case. However, he does offer her help and looks into his file. The man Charlie murdered was Charlie’s mom’s abusive boyfriend, George. George had punched Charlie’s mom causing her to fall, and in the process she hits her head on the counter which causes her to bleed severely. After failed attempts of trying to help his unconscious mother, he goes to call 9-1-1, but notices George is asleep. In a blind rage he grabs a gun and shoots George, and then calls 9-1-1. Looking further into his file, it says that he was found to be a “dangerous adult” and “heartless”. Though this may have been said, when Stevenson sees pays him a visit, it could not be further from the truth. The boy is a scrawny little boy who barely spoke or made eye contact. After trying to get Charlie to talk, he finally opens up about what happened to him during his two nights in jail. Charlie cries, “‘There were three men who hurt me on the first night. They touched me and made me do things…They came back the next night and hurt me a lot…There were so many last night. I don’t know how many there were, but they hurt me…’”. Charlie was a vulnerable fourteen year old boy who was treated poorly while in jail, which caused Bryan to take the case and fought for him to have his own single cell until he had to appear in court. Though it was not a death row case, it was a case he knew he had to take action on.
The connection to the criminal justice system is misuse of the three major components of the criminal justice system: police, courts, and corrections. To show, you can see this within Mr. Herbert Richardson’s case from Chapter 4. His attorney did not use vital evidence to support his “not guilty” plea and did not allow him to appeal. Also, this could be seen in the case of Darnell Houston. He was wrongly placed under arrest for perjury without an investigation being put into action beforehand. The use of these three major components of the criminal justice system is to protect and serve the people along with their rights, and these components were shamefully ignored.
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