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About Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson:
Just Mercy is a heartbreaking—but not entirely hopeless—look inside the American criminal justice system. The guide on this journey to death row, judges’ chambers, and courthouses small and large is Bryan Stevenson, one of the country’s foremost criminal justice reformers and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, the acclaimed legal aid organization based in Montgomery, Alabama.
In Stevenson’s chronicle, the only thing standing between death or life imprisonment is an underpaid, overworked lawyer.
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Summary and Analysis of Just Mercy A Story of Justice and Redemption
Based on the Book by Bryan Stevenson
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Introduction: Higher Ground
In 1983, while interning for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), a legal aid nonprofit based in Atlanta, Stevenson meets, for the first time, someone on death row. Henry has been housed in the maximum-security Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center for two years, despite having no access to a lawyer.
The meeting is awkward and intense — and has lasting effects for the young law student. Stevenson, all of 23 years old, is on break from Harvard Law School, where he felt disconnected and put off by the abstract nature of his studies. His task now is far from abstract: He has been sent to inform Henry that the SPDC is looking into his case, and — more importantly — that no execution date will be scheduled during the next year.
An openly hostile guard escorts Stevenson to the visitation room, where, filled with panic about meeting a condemned prisoner, he awaits Henry, who is brought into the room in shackles and handcuffs. After he is unchained, Stevenson greets him with a stammering apology. He is put at ease by the prisoner, who is grateful for SPDC's intervention. Eventually, the two begin to speak about normal things like music and family, turning away from the case to ordinary conversation for three hours.
Like Stevenson, Henry is 23 and black. To the young lawyer, he looks just like any other peer — a regular person rather than a frightening criminal. He also, for Stevenson, personifies the injustice of the American criminal justice system. In the span of that short meeting, Stevenson is put on the path that leads to his career fighting for the unjustly accused and incarcerated.
This fight will be deeply connected to Stevenson's own history. Born and raised in a racially segregated town in coastal Delaware, Stevenson grew up in a town where black people "worked hard all the time but never seemed to prosper." Using his own experiences, and the even more traumatic experiences of his parents and grandparents, he draws a line from America's history of oppressive racism to the current era of mass incarceration.
In its current form, he says, the criminal justice system has created far more problems than it has addressed. He enumerates its many disastrous policies: the abolition of parole in many states; "three strikes" laws that send nonviolent offenders to prison for decades; child offenders charged as adults; drug addicts prosecuted as criminals; and the great number of poor people — many of them black — tried and convicted without decent counsel.
Federal and state governments now dole out approximately $80 billion a year to build and maintain jails and prisons. Stevenson looks at the US justice system and sees a colossal waste of human, financial, and spiritual resources. "The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned," he writes. This humane reflection sums up Stevenson's philosophy, and explains what motivates tireless work.
Chapter One: Mockingbird Players
Walter McMillian is a black Alabama man convicted of murder and on death row. His particular case made national news, and Bryan Stevenson's work on McMillian's behalf garnered widespread attention for himself and for his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
During his fourth year at the SPDC, where he had returned to work after graduation, Stevenson and a legal aid colleague working in Alabama secured federal funding to represent people on death row, many of whom had no legal representation at all. By this point, the young lawyer had achieved many victories, including stays of execution for a number of men, some only minutes away from being electrocuted. At their meeting on Alabama's death row, Stevenson is struck by McMillian's emotional insistence on his innocence. Still, overworked and overwhelmed, Stevenson tries to keep his client's expectations realistic.
A few weeks after he meets with McMillian, Stevenson receives a phone call at his office from Robert E. Lee Key, the judge who had presided over McMillian's trial. He tries to warn Stevenson off the case by asserting, alternately, that McMillian was a drug lord and possible member of the "Dixie Mafia"; that he couldn't appoint a lawyer to represent McMillian who wasn't a member of the Alabama bar (Stevenson was); and that McMillian wasn't actually indigent because he had drug money stashed all over Monroe County. All of the judge's objections were false or hollow, and Stevenson had agreed to serve as McMillian's lawyer voluntarily — he wasn't seeking official appointment. But this disingenuous exchange provided an illuminating (and depressing) glimpse at the massive resistance Stevenson would encounter during his work with McMillian, and throughout his career.
The hostility Stevenson faced was a function of two things: The woman McMillian was accused of murdering was white, and his past relationship with a married white woman, Karen Kelly, was looked on by the white community with hostility. Born outside Monroeville, Alabama — ironically, the setting of the classic novel on miscegenation, racism, and our legal system, To Kill a Mockingbird — McMillian was a successful businessman in a town where that alone was suspicious. In 1986, while he was in a relationship with Kelly, hostility towards interracial relationships was so great it was still outlawed in the state's constitution.
This hostility was central to McMillian's eventual conviction for the murder of Ronda Morrison, a white 18-year-old college student found dead at the cleaning business where she worked. Months after the murder investigation, which failed to turn up any leads, a prisoner named Ralph Myers claimed McMillian was responsible. Myers was being held for his involvement in the murder of a woman named Vickie Lynn Pittman; his codefendant was McMillian's previous girlfriend, Karen Kelly. That was not all: Myers claimed McMillian was involved in the Pittman murder as well. Myers's shocking allegations quickly fell apart as "it soon became apparent that Walter McMillian had never met Ralph Myers, let alone committed two murders with him." When the Alabama Bureau of Investigation brought Myers to a store where McMillian was shopping, Myers was unable to even identify him. Still, with only Myers's accusation to go on, the newly installed County Sheriff Thomas Tate, under considerable pressure from the community, arrested McMillian for Morrison's murder.
Chapter Two: Stand
At the same time he was fielding legal complaints about police misconduct in minor traffic incidents that had led to black men being imprisoned or, worse, killed, Stevenson had his own encounter with the police while simply sitting outside his Atlanta apartment in his car.
After a long day of prisoner visits, Stevenson was in his 1975 Honda Civic, listening to Sly and the Family's Stone's "Stand!" on a radio that rarely worked. When a SWAT team suddenly appeared, he exited his car to tell them everything was okay — only to have an officer draw his weapon and shout, "Move and I'll blow your head off!" Fighting an urge to run, Stevenson calmly and repeatedly insisted he lived on the premises while the policemen conducted an illegal search on the vehicle. (One went so far as to sniff into a bag of M&Ms, looking for contraband.) Neighbors appeared on balconies and the street to watch and mutter about burglaries in the area.
The encounter leaves Stevenson shaken and angry, and worried for the young men routinely harassed in such incidents. On his seat, during their search, had been the case file of a black teenager shot and killed by the police after running a red light. If even a law-abiding, Harvard-educated lawyer is subject to this kind of treatment, he can only imagine how much worse it was for his clients.
Stevenson begins to give presentations to churches, youth groups, and community organizations about the incarceration system, and how the presumption of guilt harms the poor and people of color. After an event at a small African American church in rural Alabama, an elderly man takes Stevenson aside and shows him the scars from beatings he'd received while registering to vote and marching for civil rights. They are, he said, his "medals of honor." This encounter is a sign to Stevenson that it is time to open a fulltime legal aid office in Alabama.
Chapter Three: Trials and Tribulations
How does a hardworking tree-cutter with no criminal record and an airtight alibi come to be convicted of two murders? It begins with a specious charge, the use of a jailhouse "snitch," and a stay on death row used to force a confession from a witness who has recanted.
Ralph Myers, playing on the sensational nature of the case, began to hint that in addition to making him an accomplice to the murder of Ronda Morrison, Walter McMillian had sexually assaulted him. Since nonprocreative sex was illegal in Alabama, this gave investigators a pretext to arrest McMillian. Over a dozen law-enforcement officers, led by Sheriff Tate, detained McMillian on his way home from work. McMillian laughed incredulously at the charge; he didn't even know what sodomy meant.
Tate responded with racial epithets, another sign that the arrest was motivated by race, not evidence.
Myers's description of the events of the crime was impossibly convoluted. But McMillian's arrest allowed investigators to use a notorious jailhouse snitch, Bill Hooks, who was promised release and reward money for his assistance. Hooks eagerly identified McMillian's truck as the one he had seen pulling away from a crime scene Myers had entirely invented. It didn't matter that, at the time of the murder, Walter was holding a fish fry at his house, where his presence was confirmed by dozens of witnesses, including a police officer who had noted stopping by in his log book.
The black community was up in arms, but Tate was unmoved. Soon thereafter, Ralph Myers recanted, realizing that in accusing Walter, he'd made himself a party to the Morrison murder (one he actually had nothing to do with).
But Tate did not suspend the investigation. In an unprecedented move, he placed both Myers and McMillian on death row before a case had even gone to trial. Crippled by the pressure of death row, Myers reaffirmed his accusations of McMillian. The money raised by Walter's church for his defense instead served as confirmation of a suspicious money hoard.
The district attorney moved forward and scheduled the case, which was delayed nearly a year and a half due to further recanting by Myers. Walter spent the entire time on death row. At the trial, despite Myers's "nonsensical" testimony, a nearly all-white jury took only three hours to send him back there.
Chapter Four: The Old Rugged Cross
In early 1989, Stevenson and his colleague Eva Ansley opened a nonprofit law clinic in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After a rocky start — the University of Alabama and the state each pulled their financial support; recruiting lawyers proved challenging — Stevenson and Ansley moved their operations to Montgomery, where they would lay the foundation for the EJI. Changes in the Supreme Court's appeal process and a zealous attorney general, Stevenson explains, were accelerating the pace of executions in Alabama, and his clinic was too late to help many, including Michael Lindsey and Horace Dunkins, two prisoners facing execution that spring. Their volunteer lawyers reached out to Stevenson's burgeoning clinic for help, but Stevenson's eleventh-hour advocacy proved fruitless: Both men were executed — in Dunkins's case, in a botched and "cruelly mishandled" electrocution.
Though deeply overextended, Stevenson takes on the case of Herbert Richardson, a traumatized Vietnam War veteran whose execution date is approaching. In the "tragically misguided" plan Stevenson describes, Richardson constructed a bomb to set off so he could then "rescue" his ex-girlfriend (thereby winning her back). It instead killed her ten-year-old niece. Because a child was killed, Richardson was sentenced to death, in spite of the fact that he had no intention of killing anyone, let alone a little girl.
Despite his efforts, Stevenson is not able to save Richardson on any legal pretext. But the veteran's grace in the face of death, as well as that of his family and the victims' families, amplifies Stevenson's understanding of the role trauma plays in criminal acts. The legal system, especially in the cases of indigent blacks, is not working to secure justice for perpetrators or victims, Stevenson decides.
Chapter Five: Of the Coming of John
When Stevenson visits the large McMillian family after a day of going over the case with Walter, their profound frustration is a painful reminder of how devastating incarceration is to those left behind. As one relative sums up, "What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm's way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain't do and send you to death row?"
But a potential break comes in the form of Darnell Houston, a young witness who claims he was working with Hooks — the supposed eyewitness — at another location on the morning of the murder, an assertion that Judge Key had dismissed during McMillian's previous motion for a new trial. Stevenson files a motion asking the court to reconsider the denial, and Darnell is promptly thrown in jail for perjury. Stevenson writes, "Police and prosecutors had found out that Darnell was talking to us and they decided to punish him for it."
Stevenson meets with Tom Chapman, Monroe County's new district attorney. He quickly realizes Chapman is as convinced of McMillian's guilt as his predecessor, and, though the DA drops the charges, Darnell is still shaken by the experience. They attempted to intimidate him, and they succeeded.
Chapter Six: Surely Doomed
Late at the office, Stevenson receives a frantic phone call from the grandmother of 14-year-old Charlie, who has been placed in the adult county jail awaiting trial for killing his mother's boyfriend, a police officer who was a violent, abusive alcoholic. Stevenson discusses how changes in states' laws have made juveniles an increasingly large portion of his caseload. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that tries juveniles as adults, including giving them the death penalty.
When Stevenson meets Charlie, the tiny boy is nearly catatonic with fear. Charlie finally reveals he has been repeatedly sexually assaulted during his nights in the adult facility. Stevenson leaves the jail in a rage and demands that the sheriff move Charlie to a protected single cell, and, after a visit to the judge, secures Charlie's transfer to a juvenile facility a few hours later.
Chapter Seven: Justice Denied
The denial of Walter's appeal devastates Stevenson, who was convinced that even the state of Alabama could no longer uphold it after reviewing the full slate of judicial and investigatory misconduct. He goes back to the drawing board.
A new hire at EJI, Michael O'Connor, one of the many top-flight graduates they have attracted, digs into the case and finds that Tate paid Hooks "reward money" for his testimony. They also discover that Hooks was released from prison immediately after giving the police his statement. The state is required to inform the defense if a witness has charges dropped in exchange for cooperation, but they never told McMillian's counsel.
Out of the blue, Ralph Myers contacts Stevenson from prison. At a meeting with Stevenson and O'Connor, he confesses, "everything I said at McMillian's trial was a lie." Group therapy at prison had convinced him to come clean. He also asserts he knows nothing about Morrison's murder, and had been coerced to testify against McMillian by the sheriff and ABI. Stevenson and O'Connor then visit Karen Kelly, who is serving time in prison for the murder of Vickie Pittman. Kelly confirms Myers's story, and expresses regret for her role in McMillian's imprisonment.
Despite their progress, Stevenson and O'Connor can go only so far without access to police records. They file a petition for a new hearing, which would make police records available to them as part of the discovery process. They are somewhat shocked when the petition is granted. This is an important victory, Stevenson explains, because it means the Alabama Supreme Court has signaled that they agree there could be an irregularity in McMillian's case.
Chapter Eight: All God's Children
Three clients serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as minors provide a portrait of common factors that lead to such juvenile convictions. In all three cases, the clients led childhoods marked by poverty, violence, sexual abuse, and neglect. They all suffer from mental disabilities and posttraumatic stress. Their lawyers were all largely incompetent, and, in two of the cases, the crimes were nonhomicidal. We first meet Trina Garnett, now fifty-two, convicted of second-degree murder at age fourteen for accidentally setting fire to a house and killing two boys sleeping inside. In prison, Trina's abuse continued: She was raped by a guard and subsequently became pregnant. Trina gave birth in handcuffs, and the child was taken away and put in foster care. The cases of Ian Manuel and Antonio Nuñez are nearly as heartbreaking. Ian was imprisoned at age thirteen for shooting a victim, who later recovered, in a robbery. Because the prison had no separate housing for juveniles, Ian spent eighteen years in solitary confinement. Even pleas for relief from his former victim went unanswered.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of Just Mercy A Story of Justice and Redemption by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Bryan Stevenson,
For Your Information,