A New York Times Bestseller – Just Mercy

Just Mercy, a New York Times bestseller, written by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, was a captivating novel looking into the lives of many inmates, but specifically one, Walter McMillian, and their journey through the corrupt criminal justice system. This novel is mostly taken place in Alabama, which had the highest execution rate in the United States at the time. Stevenson’s journey began as an intern in Georgia with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), where Steve Bright, the director of the SPDC, inspired Stevenson with his powerful words about capital punishment and its overwhelming amount of issues. After he finished his internship, his interest in the death penalty “”focused on the sociology of race, poverty, and power,”” soared and this was the start of his career that would make him well known around the world, and an inspiration to many (Stevenson, 12).

Ronda Morrison, 18, was a beloved college student who worked at a dry-cleaners. On November 1, 1986, Ronda Morrison was shot multiple times in the back in the dry-cleaners where she worked. The whole town of Monroeville was shaken up by this chilling crime. They wanted answers; and that is what they got when Ralph Myers started talking and spinning a web of lies. Ralph Myers began a relationship with Walter’s former lover, Karen Kelly. Myers stated that he saw McMillian at a gas station and that McMillian had approached him and forced him to drive his truck to the dry-cleaners. Myers did so, and told police that he saw Walter shot Ronda in the back and then stuffed a bunch of money in a brown paper bag and immediately left and got back in the car. Another witness, Bill Hooks, came forward and said that he had seen Walter’s low-rider truck outside of the dry-cleaners during the time of the crime. Not having any other leads or any more evidence, besides, the two witness statements, the police officers, specifically Sheriff Tom Tate, arrested McMillian and charged him with the capital murder of Ronda Morrison. A little over a year after his arrest, McMillian was found guilty of capital punishment and sentenced to death. McMillian’s worst nightmare had come true.

Walter McMillian wasn’t the only one with his worst nightmare coming true, hundreds of fellow inmates were also experiencing this feeling, including juveniles. The three most focused on in this novel are Trina Garnett, Ian Manuel, and Antonio Nunez. All of these children were sentenced to die in prison, which Stevenson thought was absurd and an example of cruel and unusual punishment. Garnett grew up in a home with an abusive father who would physically and mentally abuse the mother in front of the children. Trina became a runaway by the age of 14. She snuck into a house, where two boys she was friends with lived, and accidentally set the house on fire, killing both of the boys. She was charged with 2nd degree murder and sentenced to life without parole in an adult prison. Shortly after Trina’s arrival, she was raped by a correctional officer and became pregnant. After this incident, her mental state only got worse. By the time she was 30 years old, she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and mental illness, which was believed to be caused by the trauma that she had been through.

Childhood trauma also scarred Antonio Nunez and traumatized him. Antonio also grew up in a domestic violence home, but he also had gang violence outside of his home. When Antonio was 13 years old, he got shot in his side, stomach and arm, but he also witnessed his older brother, 14 years old, get shot in the head and immediately die. This traumatic event caused him to purchase a gun for his own safety. When Antonio turned 14, him and two of his older friends were in a van, pretending they had kidnapped someone to get the ransom money, and noticed they were being followed. A chase began to break out and shots were fired by Antonio. Little did he know, that the people following them were undercover cops. Antonio was charged with aggravated kidnapping and attempted murder of police officers. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Ian Manuel is another example of mental illness being caused by a trauma. He attempted to rob a couple when they were away, along with two other older boys. When, Debbie Baigre came home unexpectedly things took a turn for the worst. Manuel shot Debbie with a handgun that was given to him by the older boys. Both Ian, and the other two boys, were charged with robbery and attempted murder and received life without the chance of parole in an adult prison. Ian was sent to solitary confinement to protect him from abuse from the other men in the prison, which made him very depressed. He began cutting himself, and attempting suicide multiple times. While Stevenson was working with his fellow lawyers to get immediate releases for these three prisoners, who were now much older, there had been major headway in Walter McMillian’s case.

After filling many appeals and getting denied, Stevenson finally won an appeal to get Walter a new trail. Leading up to this new trial, Stevenson and his fellow attorneys did some serious digging into the evidence that was presented in the first trail that helped convict Walter. The main witness, Ralph Myers, they discovered had recanted his statement shortly after he was arrested, but was threatened and pressured by local law enforcement to present his original story. If he recanted, they would sentence him to death for another murder he was a suspect in. When Stevenson went to visit Myers, before he could even say anything Myers “”blurted out a full recantation of his trial testimony,”” which honestly didn’t surprise Stevenson because he knew Myers story was completely fabricated (Stevenson, 135). Myers ultimately admitted that “”he knew nothing about the Morrison murder, had no clue what happened to her or anything else about the crime,”” but that he was coerced to say these things (Stevenson, 136). Luckily, Stevenson and his team got access to the video tapes of Myers’s interview with law enforcement and this proved everything that Myers had said. More evidence that was presented in trial was Bill Hooks admitting that his testimony was false and that he was also coerced and paid off by law enforcement to testify against Walter McMillian. Not only was it this evidence that proved Walter was innocent, but he had an alibi by multiple people who saw him at his family’s fish fry, even a police officer. Prosecutor, Tommy Chapman, decided to join Stevenson and drop the charges against Walter. Finally, Walter McMillian was free, but that doesn’t mean that his battle was over.

Walter was “”the 15th person to be exonerated in the modern era,”” multiple inmates before him were also wrongfully convicted and had been freed (Stevenson, 242). To make sure that there was no negative backlash towards Walter after he got released from prison, he moved up to Montgomery for a short period of time and then to Florida for a couple of months. Walter moved back to his hometown of Monroeville and he started to go downhill. Walter soon developed advanced dementia, that came about from all of the trauma he had been through. On September 11, 2013 Walter McMillian passed away. Even though Walter isn’t here today, his story will live on forever and he will forever be an inspiring story.

I.Critical Reaction

Just Mercy was a truly inspiring and emotional novel that took readers into the lives of inmates who are on death row and also sentenced to life in prison without parole, who are either innocent, children, or mentally disabled. Almost all of the inmates that were discussed in this novel were people of color, which makes sense since Stevenson focuses a lot of his work on race and poverty. I enjoyed how Stevenson tied back a lot of these stories and feelings back to his own personal life. In chapter two, Stevenson discusses his own unpleasant run in with law enforcement. When he was just sitting in front of his apartment listening to music, minding his own business, he was approached by two officers at gunpoint. Once Stevenson was out of the car, the officers’ illegal searched his car. Immediately after this incident occurred, all Stevenson could think about was did young black boys know not to run? This is a huge issue in today’s society. A lot of stories we hear in the news is a black boy being gunned down by a police officer, and the officer always says “”well they started running.”” I can’t even express how upsetting this is. Just because someone runs doesn’t mean that you shoot them down in cold blood, it doesn’t even mean that they are guilty or not. Which brings me to my next point, everyone is innocent until proven guilty and that is something that is a huge problem in this novel.

To prove that someone is guilty, there needs to be significant evidence tying the defendant to the crime. In Walter McMillian’s case, it wasn’t lack of evidence that was the problem, the evidence was there, but the problem was that all of the evidence was completely falsified. False testimonies, coercion, and paying off inmates was only the beginning in the overwhelming amount of corruption in this Alabama criminal justice system. After reading this novel, and hearing Ndume Olatushani, I discovered that all this corruption was no accident. Ndume was accused of the murder of a Memphis store owner, which occurred during a botched robbery. He spent nearly 28 years in prison, 20 of those on death row, until he was finally freed in 2012. All of the evidence against Ndume was completely fabricated and withheld from the defense, which didn’t allow him to be represented to the fullest. The first piece of evidence against him was a witness who wasn’t even 100% sure that it was him, he only got a quick glimpse. During the witness’s interview, the police showed him only pictures of Ndume and kept saying to him that he did the crime. Another piece of evidence was a fingerprint on a stolen car out of St. Louis. Ndume’s prints didn’t match the ones that were found on the rental car, but they said that they did. A friend of Ndume also said that he told her he did the crime, which was completely false. His friend had charges against her, so the police said that if she testified against him the charges would be dropped. The police knew who actually committed the crime because they had the fingerprint, but they were desperate to close the case and didn’t want to admit that all of their evidence against Ndume was fabricated. Ndume’s freedom couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of his wife, Anne-Marie Moyes, who also was the one who got him into his passion of art.

Family and friends play such a big role in the support of their loved one in prison and on death row, but no one is there to support them and to me, that is one of the biggest issues with the death penalty. This issue was highlighted in chapter four when Stevenson met an inmate named Herbert Richardson. Herbert was a Vietnam War veteran who has serious trauma from the war and suffered from PTSD. He was dating a woman and once she decided to end things with him, he decided to take drastic measures to win her back. He built a bomb, with a detonator, and delivered it to her front porch. A little girl and her friend came outside and were fascinated with the clock-like package. The little girl shook the package which resulted in a very violent explosion, killing her and leaving her friend absolutely traumatized. He was charged with murder and sentenced to death. Not only did Stevenson not think Richardson should be sentenced to death, but the victims mother and aunt didn’t believe it either, stating that “”we don’t believe in killin’ people”” (Stevenson, 81). With no luck reducing the charges to life in prison, Stevenson went and saw Herbert on his last night before execution. When Bryan arrived he entered the visitation room and was greeted by Herbert’s family. At the end of the visitation, Herbert’s wife began to sob uncontrollably and refused to let go of him. Soon after, everyone began to cry and Stevenson described it as “”an instant flood of sadness and tragedy,”” that had taken over everyone in the room (Stevenson, 86). Herbert soon had to be taken back, but Bryan went back with him for his last moments. Everyone that had been with Herbert on the day of his execution, including the guards, were being very sympathetic and making sure that he had everything he needed on his last day, which felt very odd for him. Stevenson could tell that even the prison guards were very uncomfortable with the idea of sending Herbert to the electric chair. After reading this chapter, I felt every single emotion that Herbert’s family felt. This story was so heartbreaking and moving at the same time, and by far my favorite chapter in the book. It allowed for the readers to really feel the pain that the family feels and the discomfort that prison staff members feel.

After reading Stevenson’s Just Mercy, it truly opened my eyes about how corrupt the criminal system can be and showed me the raw emotions that inmates and their families feel. Even though this novel is mainly based in Alabama, corruption and racial motivated arrests are happening all over the country. This was one of my absolute favorite novels and I think it is an important read for a lot of people to really get to see who is affected by the death penalty and how damaging it can really be, especially if you’re innocent. If you haven’t already changed your view about the death penalty, Bryan Stevenson’s novel Just Mercy will instantly change it, and you too will show mercy.

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