Just Mercy: A wake up Call



This piece, published in the November 2017 edition of the Review Books, won the Books Sciences Po Book Review Award.



           In 2016, one in eight African American baby boys is expected to spend at least two years in jail before he reaches the age of 20.[1] Among the 18,000 individuals executed by the United States of America since the establishment of the death penalty in 1790, 42% were Black and 15% of them wrongly condemned.[2] Such numbers are discussed in the Western world on almost on a weekly basis through newspapers, social media and television leading to a feeling of resignation and sometimes indifference to the revolting reality of mass incarceration. Re-introducing the humanity behind these figures, Just Mercy reminds us what injustice is actually about: poverty, violence and eventually death. Through the illuminative case of Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a notorious murder he did not commit, activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson immerses us in a system fundamentally defined by error - leaving the reader overwhelmed with ambivalent emotions.


            Stevenson begins with his childhood, growing up poor in a small African American community in Delaware. He went to Eastern College before attending Harvard Law, where he did not immediately understand the purpose of his classes. After his first year of Law School, he went to Georgia and spent the summer working as a paralegal in a small civil rights law firm. His encounter with a prisoner waiting to be executed on death row and deprived of a lawyer was a revelation. He decided to move to Alabama right after graduation, where he founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and started tirelessly defending resource-less convicts. A couple months later he began representing McMillian, on death row for murdering a young woman he had never met. A hard-working and respected Black man in the deep south, McMillian had an extra-marital affair with a white woman. For this, Stevenson argues, he was punished with a homicide charge. As Stevenson unfolds the conspiracy behind McMillian's conviction, involving corruption, perjury, openly racist legal forces and deliberate judicial inaccuracies, he points to the scale of the death-penalty machinery in late 1980s Alabama. Progressively, it becomes clear that McMillian's condemnation is not only a racist act, it is an injustice within a prolonged racist pattern.


            Weaving together history and his knowledge of US law, Stevenson shows the continuity of institutional racism since the age of slavery in America. He dares to claim that mass incarceration is nothing but the prolongation of segregation, racial terrorism and lynching. And Stevenson does not only name the historical roots of exclusion, he also shows how racism operates daily and insidiously. One night, Stevenson recalls driving home after a particularly harrowing day working with inmates in death row. He turned the radio on and found a retrospective on the music of Sly. "In just over three years of law practice, I had become one of those people for whom such small events could make a big difference in my joy quotient," remembers Stevenson.[3] When arriving on his street, he decided to stay in his vehicle for a while to listen to the music, although it was past midnight. Soon, two policemen parked in front of Stevenson, stared at him intensely and then started to move toward him. As Stevenson calmly opened the door of his car to walk home, one of the policemen pointed his weapon at him and shouted "move and I'll blow your head off!"[4] Because Stevenson had heard the story so many times, he knew he must not move in order to stay alive. Which he managed to do, despite his instinct urging him to run away. Under the invasive look of his neighbors yelling racist insults from their balconies, Stevenson's car is searched by the policemen, whom finally let him go. From then on and during the entire chapter, Stevenson is haunted by this disruptive question: did all the young Black boys in the neighborhood know not to run?


As Stevenson fights racism he encounters all kinds of injustice. While the six-year judicial battle to acquit McMillian is the backbone of the book, other revolting cases emerge. We meet Antonio Nuñez, the "only child in the [USA] known to have been sentenced to die in prison for his involvement, at age 14, in a single incident where no one was injured."[5] We meet Marsha Colbey, wrongly convicted of capital murder in 2007 and "sentenced to life imprisonment without parole when she gave birth to a stillborn baby."[6] We meet Diane Tucker, an "intellectually disabled woman who was wrongly convicted and sent to prison for a murder that never took place."[7] Disclosing the shocking legal failures of these cases, Stevenson emphasizes how judicial indifference systematically hits the most marginalized. He shows that social misery intersects race, age, gender, poverty and marginalization. He unveils how mass incarceration creates and perpetuates inequalities. Writing about the unfairness of capital punishment, Stevenson demonstrates the sociological, economic, political and historical roots of the violence staining American society.


              In the first pages, Stevenson remembers his grandmother telling him: "You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close."[8] Immersing his reader into the lives of his clients, Stevenson drags us deep inside custodial violence - and eventually forces us to look at the materiality of capital punishment head on. At Holman jail, where Walter McMillian is imprisoned, existence relies on Alabama's electric chair; the "Yellow Mama."[9] Just a few years before McMillian arrived at Holman, John Evans and Arthur Jones had been electrocuted in the jail execution chamber. In Chapter 3, Stevenson does not spare us; he reproduces the complete affidavit describing John Evans' execution, which took 14 minutes, three 1,900 volts electric jolts and left Evan's body charred and smouldering.[10] We read how "sparks and flames erupted from the electrode tied to Mr. Evans's left leg," how "a large puff of greyish smoke poured out from under the hood that covered Mr. Evans's face" and how "the stench of burning flesh was nauseating."[11] In the next chapter, Stevenson walks us through the last day of death-sentenced prisoner Herbert Richardson, which Stevenson spent with him. We encounter the men paid to shave Herbert's body so he can "be killed more efficiently," the visitation officer separating Herbert from his family and the prison officials revealing extreme discomfort and even "some measure of shame."[12] We see Herbert trying to make everyone around him feel better in the face of his own death. Eventually it seems that everyone recognized what was taking place was wrong: abstract considerations about death penalty are one thing, but the reality of systematically killing someone who is not a threat is quite another issue.[13]


              "The real question of capital punishment is [...] do we deserve to kill?"[14] asks Stevenson. While he narrates the case of McMillian and his struggle against endemic issues in American jurisprudence, he constantly compels his reader to come to terms with what death penalty does: destroying the human body. In one of the final chapters of the book, Stevenson recalls the case of Jimmy Dill, executed by the state of Alabama on April 19, 2009. An individual suffering from intellectual disability and having been sexually and physically abused throughout his childhood, Jimmy had received such "inadequate legal assistance that neither the jury nor the courts had the evidence needed to make a reliable decision about whether [he] was guilty of capital murder or whether a death sentence was appropriate."[15] Despite this flawed legal procedure, despite United States Supreme Court having previously banned the execution of people with mental retardation, Jimmy was declared guilty in 1989 and sentenced to death. 20 years later, Stevenson's struggle to revise Jimmy's trial seemed doomed from the outset - and it indeed fails. On the night of the execution, Jimmy calls Stevenson and simply says: "Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y'all for trying to save me."[16] Faced one more time with the unbearable injustice and the unutterable violence of capital punishment, Stevenson decides to call for mercy, because mercy is the only way to embrace humanness and to heal brokenness. Because "each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."[17]


              Journalists have criticized Stevenson's emphatic tone, scholars have accused Just Mercy of presenting a simplistic good versus evil approach to injustice and politicians have said that the book caricatured reality. In fact, Stevenson's narrative is just the opposite. The best example of this is how Stevenson describes the outcome of McMillian's case. "Instead of the Hollywood moment of people cheering and champagne popping when the court finally frees McMillian, Stevenson admits he was 'confused by [a] suddenly simmering anger.'"[18] He found himself thinking of the pain McMillian's family had been through, about those others wrongly convicted who did not receive the help of activists lawyers. Just Mercy does not end with McMillian's release; it narrates the shattered life of McMillian after six years spent on death row. Yes, Stevenson argues that "evil" can be overcome.[19] But he acknowledges that certain people are irremediably destroyed on the way.


            Why should we all read Just Mercy, especially in Europe? Because Just Mercy is not only a book focusing on injustice in the South of the United States. It is also a reminder that there are real humans behind social sciences. That talking about race is not necessarily being racist and thus we should not fear using race as an analytical tool. If used correctly, racial discourses could help us to better pinpoint the flaws of our own custodial systems - and societies as a whole. Stevenson further shows us that unfairness is not exclusively a matter of death penalty, but also about "how [we] treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated [...] and that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice."[20] That injustice is not only embedded in history, but also rooted in the writing of history - that we should be careful when we deal with the remembrance of the past. Yet ultimately Just Mercy is about the present, and while it is a call for action against injustice in the US, it is a wake-up call to Europe as well, reminding us that we should never take history and justice for granted.

© Rosalie Calvet, November 2017


Conover, Ted. “‘Just Mercy,’ by Bryan Stevenson.” The New York Times, October 17, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html.

Radelet, Michael L., ed. Facing the Death Penalty: Essays on a Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014.

———. “Just Mercy: The Stories,” n.d. https://eji.org/jimmy-dill.

“U.S. Death Penalty Facts.” Amnesty International USA. Accessed November 27, 2016. http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts.



[1] “U.S. Death Penalty Facts,” Amnesty International USA, accessed November 27, 2016, http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/us-death-penalty-facts.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014), 39.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: The Stories,” n.d., https://eji.org/jimmy-dill.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stevenson, Just Mercy, 14.

[9] Ibid., 54.

[10] Michael L. Radelet, ed., Facing the Death Penalty: Essays on a Cruel and Unusual Punishment (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 1.

[11] John Evans' Execution Affidavit (testimony of Russell F. Canan). 22 June 1983, Holman Federal Jail

[12] Stevenson, Just Mercy, 89.

[13] Ibid., 90.

[14] Ibid., 20.

[15] Stevenson, “Just Mercy: The Stories.”

[16] Stevenson, Just Mercy, 288.

[17] Ibid., 289.

[18] Ted Conover, “‘Just Mercy,’ by Bryan Stevenson,” The New York Times, October 17, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html.

[19] Stevenson, Just Mercy, 290.

[20] Ibid.