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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


According to the subtitle, this is a story of justice and redemption, but it is also a story of obstacles and brokenness. In this book, we get a gloomy picture of our justice system and the many ways in which has room for improvement.

For an example, visit the Innocence List -- a web page listing all people freed from death row. These are not people whose sentences were reduced to life in prison. In order to get on this list, a person has to have been convinced, sentenced to death, and subsequently been acquitted of the crime that placed him or her on death row (or had all charges dismissed by the prosecution or been granted a complete pardon based on evidence of innocence). It's a little scary.

This book contains 16 chapters that detail the work of the author in justice reforms of various kinds while focusing on one case in particular in a back and forth fashion (every other chapter). The story that grips the reader is that of Walter McMillian. You can probably figure out by now that this case is one of those that you'll find on the innocence list. Even though I've just committed a major spoiler, there is still so much in this book that you'll want to know about. I was incensed at some of the things this book revealed.

Some examples:
  • I didn't know that judges could (and commonly do) overrule jury decisions for life in prison by imposing the death penalty. This is typically done by elected judges that want to appear to be tough on crime. See chapter 4. 
  • The electric chair sounds absolutely awful, and I had no idea how many executions were botched or done ineffectively by this method.
  • I was under the impression that when a person decides to represent themselves, it usually goes poorly. However, the way that some public defenders were represented in this book makes me think that it couldn't possibly be worse! Several examples were given about people being convicted when their defender really didn't present any evidence or arguments.
  • Walter McMillian and state's witnesses were held on death row prior to being convicted!
  • Many, many examples of racism in the system -- anecdotal examples such as making the black people enter the courtroom last and having the black attorney strip searched when entering the jail, and statistical examples regarding minority children receiving disproportionately harsh sentences for non-homicidal crimes.
In the end, I have a lot of respect for this author and the work he has done as the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. As a Christian, I resonated most with his statements about our "common humanity" as part of chapter 15, which was a succinct summary of original sin. As Mr. Stevenson says, "You are more than the worst thing you've ever done." The quicker we can own up to our own weakness, the sooner we won't feel the need to cast stones at each other.

In case anyone is keeping track:
-I got this book from Marion Public Library
-I read it as part of my two-person book club
-This book was recommended

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