Just Mercy | Review, Reflections, and Notes

Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2015. (349 pages)

Review and Reflections

What Stevenson does in this book is brilliant, for he does not just state the problem with erudite arguments, though he is a brilliant lawyer and rhetorician. Rather, he weaves the inhumanity of our systems through the humanity of the people told in stories. The reader gets to engage and empathize (as best as one can through a book) the very real experiences of people who are being treated so unfairly, unjustly.

I cried. I cursed. And hopefully I was convicted yet again of the work of justice, this time, with an awakened and aware sense of mercy, not simply for the accused, but for all us, because we are all broken.

I cannot recommend Stevenson’s book more highly. He is a true hero, counted among those who are able to elevate the very best of human and divine love out of the valley of inhumanity, injustice, and despair. May his tribe continue to increase.

Below are my highlighted excerpts.


Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. (17-18)

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and–perhaps–we all need some measure of unmerited grace. (18)

In the aftermath of slavery, the creation of a system of racial hierarchy and segregation was largely designed to prevent intimate relationships … relationships that were, in fact, legally prohibited by “anti-miscegenation statues” (the word micegenation came into use in the 1860s, when supporters of slavery coined the term to promote the fear of interracial sex and marriage and the race mixing that would result if slavery was abolished). For over a century, law enforcement officials in many Southern communities absolutely saw it as part of their duty to investigate and punish black men who had been intimate with white women. (27)

The evil tendency of the crime [of adultery or fornication] is greater when committed between persons of the two races … Its result may be the amalgamation of the two races, producing a mongrel population and a degraded civilization, the prevention of which is dictated by a sound policy affecting the highest interests of society and government. – Alabama Supreme Court, 1882

Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896Loving v. Virginia, 1967

In the South, crimes like murder or assault might send you to prison, but interracial sex was a transgression in its own unique category of danger with correspondingly extreme punishments. (29)


The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro. – Alabama’s state constitution, Section 102 (1986)

[Even though the restriction couldn’t be enforced under federal law, the state ban on interracial marriage in Alabama continued into the twenty-first century. In 2000, reformers finally had enough votes to get the issue on the statewide ballot, where a majority of voters chose to eliminate the ban, although 41 percent voted to keep it. A 2011 poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 46 percent support a legal ban on interracial marriage, 40 percent oppose such a ban, and 14 percent are undecided. (29)]

Strauder v. West Virginia, 1880 Batson v. Kentucky, 1986Atkins v. Virginia, 2002  

By the mid-1980s, nearly 20 percent of the people in jails and prisons in the United States had served in the military. While the rate declined in the 1990s as the shadows cast by the Vietnam War began to recede, it has picked up again as a result of the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. (75)

In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would. I couldn’t stop thinking that we don’t spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves. (91)

In all death penalty cases, spending time with clients is important. Developing the trust of clients is not only necessary to manage the complexities of the litigation and deal with the stress of a potential execution; it’s also key to effective advocacy. A client’s life often depends on his lawyer’s ability to create a mitigation narrative that contextualizes his poor decisions or violent behavior. Uncovering things about someone’s background that no one has previously discovered–things that might be hard to discuss but are critically important–requires trust. Getting someone to acknowledge he has been the victim of child sexual abuse, neglect, or abandonment won’t happen without the kind of comfort that takes hours and multiple visits to develop. Talking about sports, TV, popular culture, or anything else the client wants to discuss is absolutely appropriate to building a relationship that makes effective work possible. But it also creates genuine connections with clients. (104)

We’ve all been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed. – Mrs. Jennings (126)

They aren’t ever going to admit they made a mistake. They know I didn’t do this. They just can’t admit to being wrong, to looking bad. – Walter McMillian (129)

Fifty years ago, the prevailing concept in the American criminal justice system was that everyone in the community is the victim when an offender commits a violent crime. The party that prosecutes a criminal defendant is called the “State” or the “People” or the “Commonwealth” because when someone is murdered, raped, robbed, or assaulted, it is an offense against all of us. In the early 1980s, though, states started involving individual crime victims in their presentation of cases. Some states authorized the family members of the victim to sit at the prosecutor’s table during trial. Thirty-six states enacted laws that gave victims specific rights to participate in the trial process or to make victim impact statements. In many places, prosecutors started introducing themselves as the lawyer representing a particular victim, rather than as a representative of civic authorities. (140)

| In death penalty cases, the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1987 that introducing evidence about the status, character, reputation, or family of a homicide victim was unconstitutional. The prevailing idea for decades had been that “all victims are equal”–that is, the murder of a four-year-old child of a wealthy parent is no more serious an offense than the murder of a child whose parent is in prison or even than the murder of the parent in prison. The Court prohibited jurors from hearing “victim impact” statements because they were too inflammatory and introduced arbitrariness into the capital sentencing process. Many critics argued that such evidence would ultimately disempower poor victims, victims who were racial minorities, and family members who didn’t have the resources to advocate for their deceased loved ones. The Court agreed striking down this kind of evidence in Booth v. Maryland. (141)

| The Court’s decision was widely criticized by prosecutors and some politicians, and it seemed to energize the victims’ rights movement. Less than three years later, the Court reversed itself in Payne v. Tennesse and upheld the rights of states to present evidence about the character of the victim in a capital sentencing trial. (141)

| With the Supreme Court now giving its constitutional blessing to a more visible and protected role for individual victims in the criminal trial process, changes in the American criminal justice process accelerated. Millions of state and federal dollars were authorized to create advocacy groups for crime victims in each state. States found countless ways for individual victims in particular crimes to become decision makers and participants. Victims’ advocates were added to parole boards, and in most states they were given a formal role in state and local prosecutors’ offices. Victim services and outreach became critical components of the prosecutorial function. Some states made executions more accommodating of victims by increasing the number of people form the victim’s family ho could watch the execution. (141)

| State legislatures enacted harsh new punishments for crimes, naming statues after particular victims. Megan’s Law, for example, which broadened state power to create sex offender registries, was named after Megan Kanka, a seven-year-old girl who was raped and murdered by a man who had previously been convicted of child molestation. Instead of a faceless state or community, crime victims were featured at trial, and criminal cases took on the dynamics of a traditional civil trial, pitting the family of the victim against the offender. Press coverage hyped the personal nature of the conflict between the offender and specific victim. A new formula emerged for criminal prosecution, especially in high-profile cases, in which the emotions, perspectives, and opinions of the victim figured prominently in how criminal cases would be managed. (141-142)

McClesky v. Kemp, 1987 

It wasn’t until 2008 that most states abandoned the practice of shackling or handcuffing incarcerated women during delivery. (151)

I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I’m here because I’m supposed to be here. I’m here because you can’t keep me away. – Mrs. Williams (181)

America’s prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill. Mass incarceration has been largely fueled by misguided drug policy an excessive sentencing, but the internment of hundreds of thousands of poor and mentally ill people has been a driving force in achieving our record levels of imprisonment. It’s created unprecedented problems. (186)

Today, over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness. In fact, there are more than three times the number of seriously mentally ill individuals in jail or prison than in hospitals; in some states that number is ten times. (188)

New York Times v. Sullivan, 1964 

The ruling marked a significant victory for freedom of the press, and it liberated media outlets and publishers to talk more honestly about civil rights protests and activism But in the South it generated even more contempt for the national press, and that animosity has lingered beyond the Civil Rights Era. (209)

[Václav] Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather “an orientation of the spirit.” The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong. (219)

The culture of sexual violence was so pervasive that even the prison chaplain was sexually assaulting women when they came to the chapel [at Tuwiler] (238)

[via: W. T. F. #%@&!]

Between 1990 and 205, a new prison opened in the United States every ten days. Prison growth and the resulting “prison-industrial complex”–the business interests that capitalize on prison construction–made imprisonment so profitable that millions of dollars were spent lobbying state legislators to keep expanding the use of incarceration to respond to just about any problem. Incarceration became the answer to everything–health care problems like drug addiction, poverty that had led someone to write a bad check, child behavioral disorders, managing the mentally disabled poor, even immigration issues generated responses from legislators that involved sending people to prison. Never before had so much lobbying money been spent to expand America’s prison population, block sentencing reforms, created new crime categories, and sustain the fear and anger that fuel mass incarceration than during the last twenty-five years in the United States. (260)

“A rapid and dramatic increase in dopaminergic activity within the socioemotional system around the time of puberty” drives the young adolescent toward increased sensation-seeking and risk-taking; “this increased in reward seeking precedes the structural maturation of the cognitive control system and its connections to areas of the socioemotional system. A maturational process that is gradual, unfolds over the course of adolescence, and permits more advanced self-regulation and impulse control … The temporal gap between the arousal of the socioemotional system, which is an early adolescent development, and the full maturation of the cognitive control system, which occurs later, creates a period of heightened vulnerability to risk taking during middle adolescence. – EJI argument to the Court (268)

The Supreme Court had banned the execution of people with intellectual disability, but states like Alabama refused to assess in any honest way whether the condemned are disabled. We’re supposed to sentence people fairly after fully considering their life circumstances, but instead we exploit the inability of the poor to get the legal assistance they need–all so we can kill them with less resistance. (287)

Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right? (288)

For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of Joe Sullivan and of Trina, Antonio, Ian, and dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, like Herbert Richardson; people broken by poverty, like Marsha Colbey; people broken by disability, like Avery Jenkins. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice. (188)

After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice. | I do what I do because I’m broken too. (289)

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. (289)

| We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. … The ways in which I have been hurt–and have hurt others–are different…but our shared brokenness connected us. (289)

We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. (289)

| We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (289)

| I thought of the guards strapping Jimmy Dill to the gurney that very hour. I thought of the people who would cheer his death and see it as some kind of victory. I realized they were broken people, too, even if they would never admit it. So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. … We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. (290)

| But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity. (290)

…there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us. (290)

The power of just mercy is that it belong to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent–strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. (294)

I believe that there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood. The first, of course, is slavery. This was followed by the reign of terror that shaped the lives of people of color following the collapse of Reconstruction until World War II. (299)

The racial terrorism of lynching in many ways created the modern death penalty. America’s embrace of speedy executions was, in part, an attempt to redirect the violent energies of lynching while assuring white southerners that black men would still pay the ultimate price. (299)

| Convict leasing was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century to criminalize former slaves and convict them of nonsensical offenses so that freed men, women, and children could be “leased” to businesses and effectively forced back into slave labor. (299)

The third institution, “Jim Crow,” is the legalized racial segregation and suppression of basic rights that defined the Americn apartheid era. (300)

Of course innocent mistakes occur, but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice. | The fourth institution is mass incarceration. (301)

It has been wonderful, Bryan. When I first came, I’d look for people who had lost someone to murder or some violent crime. Then it got to the point where some of the ones grieving the most were the ones whose children or parents were on trial, so I just started letting anybody lean on me who needed it. All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other. (308)

…we have to be stonecatchers. (309)


A System that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. (313)

The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill? (313)

…mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. … And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule. (314)


I continue to meet stonecatchers along the way who inspire me and make me believe that we can do better than we’ve done for the accused, convicted, and condemned among us–as well as those who are victimized by crime and violence–and that all of us can do better for one another. The work continues. (316)

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