In our latest book club read, Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson showcases the essence of the Equal Justice Initiative, his legal advocacy organization. While Stevenson uses a number of cases to highlight ablest, racist, sexist, and classist hues on the American death row, Stevenson relies mostly on the highly illustrative power of Walter McMillian’s story.
A self employed black man in the deep south, Walter McMillian made the mistake of having an extramarital affair with a white woman. Down the line, a well-liked young white woman is killed in their town, and the police don’t hesitate to pin the murder on McMillian, despite his rock-solid alibi. Years later, Stevenson takes McMillian’s case as part of the Equal Justice Initiative, and gradually uncovers the elaborate conspiracy designed to put his client in the electric chair.
I was so close to giving this book 5 of 5 stars. All I wanted was for Bryan Stevenson to challenge himself—and I don’t think that’s too large a request, either. To me, the cases he chose were much too cut and dry. Given a fair trial and a jury of his peers, Walter McMillian would never have spent a night in jail, let alone years. Similarly, Joe Sullivan was a mentally disabled minor, who could have been exonerated with a better lawyer.
Many of the other cases in the book are equally as obvious. I use obvious cautiously because if nothing else, Stevenson illustrates how multidimensional these types of cases can be. It’s simple of me, but what I really wanted was a case that tested his dedication to abolishing the death penalty.
Rationally, my opinion on the death penalty as a vehicle to further existing social strata is clear, but I’m still digesting the issue on a larger level. I understand our country’s heinous history ensures the death penalty will never be enacted without disproportionately affecting people of color and lower socioeconomic status. Furthermore, I also know that those on death row are predominately people of color or of low socioeconomic status sentenced for crimes committed against white people. Regardless, I see people like Dylann Roof when I turn on the news, and…things change.
For me, what it really comes down to is this:
At my very core, I still haven’t truly determined whether the state has the right to kill. It’s something I grapple with every time the subject crosses my mind.
But Timothy McVeigh is the emotive punctuation at the end of every logical argument I craft against the capital punishment. I counter it with Troy Davis, and the everlasting memory of protest and prayer outside the Jackson, Georgia facility the night he was executed.
That complexity is what I wanted from Bryan Stevenson. I wanted to know how he would deal with his doubt in this moment, because I’ve been too weak to get past it on my own.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book. In our book club, I had so many questions and critiques that other readers in the group thought I disliked both the book and its author. I questioned its title (“This book has little to do with mercy, and everything to do with justice, honesty, and accountability), its cases (“Couldn’t he have picked a better case than a guy who killed a child in the process of aggressively stalking a woman?), and its statistics (“One in three black boys born in 2010 will definitely not be going to prison, and that’s not even a productive statistic to share.”). We didn’t agree on the answers, but we had a great time working our way through the questions.
That said, I’d still highly recommend this book– especially for book clubs as vocal as ours. The stories are so well told, and Stevenson is obviously brilliant. More importantly, Just Mercy reignited my curiosity in an issue that once held a dear place in my heart. Also, its only 10 bucks at Starbucks, so you have no excuse not to read it!
*If you’re curious, Stevenson’s brief commentary on Dylann Roof is at the bottom of this interview. I respect his consistency, and think he makes good points.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Release date: October 21, 2014
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau