Through his book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson revisits his career as a legal advocate for marginalized people who haven’t been treated fairly by law enforcement. Stevenson moves to Atlanta to work for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee and later movies to Alabama where he founds his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). In Alabama, Stevenson represents many death row inmates, one of which was Walter McMillian who became connected with EJI while on death row. Stevenson takes over the case and over the course of a few years pursues a retrial for Walter. Stevenson brings light to the racial discrimination and political corruption within Walter’s community. With a new investigation, EJI motions for the state to drop all charges and the motion is approved. Walter is released after six years on death row; EJI attempts to help him reenter society, but Walter is not the same. At his funeral, Stevenson gives a speech about the lessons Walter had taught him about resilience, hope, dignity, and forgiveness. Stevenson also retells the stories of many others who have been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. Stevenson describes how each of those children suffered different forms of trauma prior to their crimes along with how easily juveniles are abused within the prison system; He argues that juvenile offenders deserve more mercy and compassion. Stevenson describes how media has influenced unreasonable criminalization of poor, drug-addicted, and mentally ill mothers. Stevenson also argues that the criminal justice system is unfair towards individuals who are mentally ill or disabled. Throughout his book, Stevenson describes the racial history of the United States; He argues that efforts to oppress and dominate black people have not ended, they have just evolved through institutions and social structures.
Experiences of Racism
Stevenson Experiences Racial Injustice First Hand: Stevenson is on his way home from work when his favorite song begins to play. Stevenson stops in front of his apartment building to enjoy the song, but an Atlanta Police SWAT car soon parks nearby. As Stevenson gets out of his car he is approached by an officer pointing their gun at him and telling him to put his hands up. Stevenson obliges, repeating the words “”It’s okay”” he attempts to assure them that he lives in the building. It becomes clear that the officers have no care for legality in this situation when they begin to illegally search Stevenson’s car. Neighbors come outside and tell the police to ask Stevenson about some missing belongings. When asked for an explanation the officers reply that someone had reported a burglary and tells Stevenson: “”We’re going to let you go. You should be happy”” (chapter 2, page 42). Stevenson had done nothing wrong, he was simply stopping to enjoy a song before retiring for the day, but he was approached by racially motivated police officers already pointing a gun at him. By adding their last remark, the police officer sent the message that he had failed to find even a shred of evidence that could send another black man to jail and that Stevenson should be happy because not every black man is as lucky as him. “”Lucky”” in this case meaning being held at gunpoint as your car is illegally searched all because you decided to park in front of your home and listen to a song.
McMillian is Used as a Scapegoat by Police in Order to Save Time and Their Image: Public pressure continued to build on Sherriff Tate, ABI Investigator Simon Benson, and DA Investigator Larry Ikner as they had yet to identify the murderer of Ronda Morrison. Myers had failed to identify Walter McMillian in a lineup even after accusing him of being involved in the murder. Myers accused McMillian of raping him after being encouraged to do so by a police officer. The police were able to arrest McMillian and question him about the murder of Ronda Morrison. While questioning him Sherriff Tate repeatedly called McMillian racial slurs and even threatened to “”hang you like we done that n****r in Mobile”” (chapter 3, page 48). His threat was in reference to the lynching of a young black man done by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite Myers claims being completely diminished by his inability to identify McMillian, the police rushes to lock McMillian up and use him as their scapegoat for the murder. Sheriff Tate clearly states his prejudice towards McMillian and his threats imply that he may be a member of the KKK. Racial prejudice and hatred ultimately affect the outcome of McMillian’s experience.
The Exclusion of Black Jurors: Despite there being federal laws put in place to prevent such actions, Southern courts have a history of purposefully excluding black jurors from serving in their court. Southern courts have continued their racially based exclusion through using pre-emptory strikes in jury selection; which is again, illegal but it is hard to prove this malpractice is occurring. The judges have not internalized any of the anti-racist views of the laws, they still hold their racist belief. When Stevenson asks for the case to be moved in order to prevent local bias the judge complies but makes sure the case is moved to a majority white town. There have been many red flags up to this point about why Myers accusations are false, and the law enforcement officials are most likely fully aware of that, but in their racially motivated mindsets they are just sending yet another black man to jail; The law enforcement officials are willing to go against the law and ignore any morals to send McMillian to jail.
Help Backfires on George Stinney: In 1944, George Stinney was a fourteen-year-old black boy who decided to help a local search party with their search for two missing girls. He told them he had seen the girls picking flowers earlier. The following day they were found dead in a ditch and Stinney was arrested for murder because he was the last person to see the girls. Years after Stinney was executed a white man confessed to the murder. George Stinney attempted to help solve a crime and ended up being punished for his honesty. This white community in South Carolina had to look for a scapegoat and George was the perfect fit… a black person in the wrong place at the wrong time.
External Forces Impact on Individuals and Families
Incarceration negatively affects the individual for multiple reasons but an important factor is prisonization. Prisonization negatively affects an individual’s social skills after leaving prison because the individual relies on the prison routine and rules after being depersonalized. Once an inmate leaves prison their brain does not work the same anymore and they will continue to live as an inmate because it takes a while to regain independence and autonomy. The end of an inmate’s sentence is not the end of their punishment because prison does not prepare individuals for reentry into society. Walter McMillian’s mental health declined after being released from death row. His logging business began to fail due to memory problems and McMillian fell to alcohol to handle to anxiety. McMillian was diagnosed with fastly advancing, trauma-induced dementia and was expected to be incapacitated soon after. Incarceration also impacts the family of the inmate negatively. When a child’s parent is imprisoned it is a traumatic separation that leads to an increase in the risk of imprisonment and decrease in academics for the child. Risk of poverty will increase for the family with the loss of one parent’s income; which will also lead to a decrease in the quality of childcare. Families are punished and shamed for the crime of their loved one by society and prison guards. Incarceration has negative impacts on not only the individual but also their family.