Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

by Bryan Stevenson

Paperback, 2015


One World (2015), Edition: Reprint, 368 pages


Biography & Autobiography. Law. Politics. African American Nonfiction. Nonfiction. HTML:#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER � NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING MICHAEL B. JORDAN AND JAMIE FOXX � A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice�from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time. �[Bryan Stevenson�s] dedication to fighting for justice and equality has inspired me and many others and made a lasting impact on our country.��John Legend NAMED ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL BOOKS OF THE DECADE BY CNN � Named One of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times � The Washington Post � The Boston Globe � The Seattle Times � Esquire � Time Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn�t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship�and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever. Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer�s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice. Winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction � Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction � Winner of a Books for a Better Life Award � Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize � Finalist for the Kirkus Reviews Prize � An American Library Association Notable Book �Every bit as moving as To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways more so . . . a searing indictment of American criminal justice and a stirring testament to the salvation that fighting for the vulnerable sometimes yields.��David Cole, The New York Review of Books �Searing, moving . . . Bryan Stevenson may, indeed, be America�s Mandela.��Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times �You don�t have to read too long to start cheering for this man. . . . The message of this book . . . is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made. Just Mercy will make you upset and it will make you hopeful.��Ted Conover, The New York Times Book Review �Inspiring . . . a work of style, substance and clarity . . . Stevenson is not only a great lawyer, he�s also a gifted writer and storyteller.��The Washington Post �As deeply moving, poignant and powerful a book as has been, and maybe ever can be, written about the death penalty.��The Financial Times �Brilliant.��The Philadelphia Inquirer.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rosalita
This book broke my heart.

One of the (few) encouraging things that seems to be coming out of our current deeply dysfunctional political process is growing bipartisan agreement that the United States is in desperate need of criminal justice reform. Politicians from both major parties are realizing
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that "mandatory minimum" sentencing laws, harsh solitary confinement practices, overly punitive punishment for juveniles who commit crimes, racial disparities in sentencing, overzealous prosecutions that ignore exculpatory evidence in order to secure conviction — all of these are having a profoundly negative effect on our society. (A cynic might note that the recent Republican interest in providing treatment instead of prison for drug users only came once the heroin epidemic struck middle-class whites, but I digress).

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.

All of these issues are explored by Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy, subtitled “A Story of Justice and Redemption”. And it’s true, some of the people Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, try to help do receive justice and some form of redemption, eventually. But it’s hard to feel triumphant about the outcomes when you read about how thoroughly their lives have been shattered before that justice is finally served.

Stevenson’s main focus is on Walter McMillian, a black man who has lived a largely blameless life in Alabama until he is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white teenager despite having been continuously in the company of more than 20 people at the time the murder was committed. The ways in which justice was mauled in his initial trial is shocking and infuriating, the sort of tale that would get rejected as completely unbelievable if someone wrote it as fiction. And yes, racism was absolutely a factor in his case, and in many aspects of EJI’s work. More than once, Stevenson himself is spoken to harshly by judges, bailiffs, law enforcement officers who don’t realize they are speaking to a black graduate of Harvard Law School and not just another black defendant. They are unable to see past the color of his skin, even when he is wearing a suit and sitting in a courtroom.

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.

Interspersed with chapters about Stevenson’s attempts to win Walter a stay of execution, a new trial, or exoneration are explorations of other aspects of the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed. The EJI successfully argued before the Supreme Court that sentencing juveniles to death row or life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, first for non-homicide crimes and eventually for all crimes. They also advocated for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled, many of whom are sentenced to death or life in prison without even understanding what they have done.

Walter’s case is a clear-cut case of wrongful conviction, but not every case that Stevenson and EJI took involved saving the innocent. Many times, the question wasn’t whether the defendant had committed the crime, but whether the sentence received was proportional to the crime, or whether the defendant had received the adequate legal counsel that they are entitled to under the Constitution.

Presenting a mix of cases and circumstances gave the book even more power for me. It’s easy to feel indignant about innocent people being executed or left to rot in jail. It’s harder to feel sympathy — and yes, mercy — for the guilty, but Stevenson’s powerful rhetoric made me understand the need for such compassion in a very personal way.

The power of just mercy is that it belongs 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 the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. I drove home broken and brokenhearted about Jimmy Dill. But I knew I would come back the next day. There was more work to do.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is a 2014 book by the lawyer who represented Walter McMillan, who was tried and convicted for the murder on 1 Nov 1986 of a white girl in Monroeville, Ala. Pete Earley told the story in his 1995 book Circumstantial Evidence, which I read 6 March 2005. That book give a more detached account of
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the case than does this one, since the author details the emotional turmoil his clients and he go through as they seek justice.. This book spends a lot of time on the McMillian case, but also tells of the other work that the author has done and is doing seeking justice for persons wrongly convicted and convicted when young, and also seeking to change prison conditions for women and persons convicted as teenagers.
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LibraryThing member Unkletom
There isn’t a day that goes by without someone saying that such-and-such a book is a must read book or that that someone doesn’t talk about adding something to their MRB list. What do they mean by this? Do they mean that if they don’t read the book the bank will repossess their home or
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gypsies will steal their children? What potential dire consequence makes that book something that really must be read ? The truth is that the vast majority of these books are really only really want to read books. This is a shame because once in a long while a book comes along that really and truly must be read and those who read it and wish to tell others about it find that there is little that they can say to convince others of how vital the book is.

I cannot remember the last time a book has moved me as much as [book:Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption|20342617], Bryan Stevenson’s book chronicling his work with Equal Justice Initiative fighting on behalf of poor men, women and children on death row for crimes they did not commit. To date, 154 wrongly convicted death row inmates have been exonerated and freed, many due to the efforts of Stevenson and the EJI. He tells his story with a grace, compassion and humility that moved me to tears on more than one occasion. Stevenson made the story an intimately personal tale by focusing on the case of Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a murder even though many witnesses; family friends, church parishioners, and even police officers were with him at his house miles away when the murder he was convicted for took place. The reader gets to know Walter, sharing his pain and fears as well as his hope and joy as his appeal makes its excruciatingly slow way through the courts. We share with him his first moments of freedom after years on death row.

But what is most important about this book is its message, told in a soft compelling voice that inexorably spells out how broken our criminal justice system is. In the United States we have more people in prison than any other country on Earth. Even China, with its less than stellar civil rights record and a population 4.25 times greater than ours has fewer people in prison. We are the only country in the world that condemns children to life in prison without parole, often for non-murder offenses. The number of people in prison for drug offenses is over 500,000, more than 10 times as many as were confined in 1980. One of every three black males born in the 21st century is expected to be incarcerated. We live in a country where judges are able to overturn a life sentence imposed by a jury and change it to a death sentence. In Alabama, a state where judges are elected in competitive elections, judges have done this 101 time.

In 1980 we spent $6.9 billion to build and maintain prisons. Today, that number is $80 billion. As comedian Jeff Ross told inmates on his prison roast TV special recently, “Crime actually does pay. It just doesn’t pay you motherf______s.”

By far, the best part of the book is Bryan’s attitude towards life and the disenfranchised people to whom he has dedicated his life.
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.

A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed.

Bottom line: This book is literally a must read book. There are innocent people sitting on death row tonight, still waiting for justice. As the book says, we've ‘got to beat the drum for justice’.
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LibraryThing member satxreader
Oh man! I started this book and after just a chapter or so, put it down and said "I'm not going to be able to finish this...it's just too painful. I'll just have to admit defeat and for the first time, not review an Early Reviewer book."

Then after a week or so I picked it back up and vowed to give
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it another try. As horrifying as Bryan's experiences are, this book ended up grabbing me and refusing to let go. His experiences are mainly in the South (Alabama) but seriously...if you think this is the only place where there is RAMPANT corruption in the legal system, you just haven't been paying attention (Chicago. NY. DC. Detroit. New Orleans. Need I go on?)

While I don't agree with EVERYthing Bryan Stevenson believes in, there can hardly be any argument that when it comes to the death penalty (and I live in Texas...where we're serious about our capital punishment) there are some major issues with indigent defendants being railroaded onto death row simply because they cannot afford anything close to competent defense attorneys. There have been too many prisoners released due to DNA evidence to argue that point with much power.

Where the jury is still out in my mind, is his assertion that young teens (like 14 or 15) deserve special treatment because of their youth.

I'm still not inclined to give special consideration to young offenders who kill. Period, end of story. For every youthful offender who claims an abusive or poverty-stricken childhood is responsible for his murderous behavior, there are countless people who lived through equally painful years and yet "somehow" managed to avoid killing innocent people. But for kids convicted of non-homicide crimes, life without the possibility of parole (essentially a sentence to die in prison, even if it takes 50 or 60 years) could be a little excessive. When a person is incarcerated as a child, and told that no matter how well he behaves, there is absolutely no possibility that it will improve his situation...well...it's probably unrealistic to expect a positive result.

Kudos to Bryan Stevenson and his team for fighting on behalf of the innocent and destitute. They have undertaken a task that is rife with danger (aka: bomb threats, etc) and scant tangible reward. But the rewards received from the families, friends and acquaintances of his clients, as well as total strangers, although intangible, more than compensate for endless hours of work that are frequently rewarded only with deep disappointment.

I would highly recommend this book, even though it is admittedly painful to come face-to-face with the naked corruption of our court system, and the utter powerlessness of the average joe to combat it. "Just Mercy" reads like a novel and never sinks into "legalese" or self-aggrandizement. Read it and find yourself simultaneously depressed and uplifted...what more can you ask?
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LibraryThing member bookcrazed
When I read Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove, I thought I was reading of a shameful era that died a natural death at the advent of the American civil rights movement. And then I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and learned that racially based brutality and injustice is alive and well in
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modern America.

When Stevenson, as a young law student, served an internship with a nonprofit legal firm that specialized in capital-punishment cases, he discovered his reason for being: to serve the underserved—the poor, the abused, the outcast. After receiving his law degree he returned to that same Atlanta law firm, where he worked for several years before founding Equal Justice Initiative, a pro bono law practice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Just as Thurgood Marshall, the champion for justice featured in King’s book, took aim at cases that would change the future of justice for black America, Stevenson has targeted cases that would change the justice system’s treatment of people who are incarcerated because they are poor or black or both. Beginning with death-row cases, where he often found himself racing to beat the executioner’s schedule, he also took up the cause of children who were tried as adults and sent to prison for life.

Stevenson has had one advantage that Marshall did not: his hope for the future is based on successes that have borne fruit in the present. Marshall took cases that he knew could never be won, but his strategy was to build a case law for a future beyond his lifetime: his hope was built on an essential belief in the structure of the American justice system. He anticipated that the work he had begun would be continued by great legal minds, such as Stevenson’s, that would be devoted to recalibrating Justice’s scales.

The only fault I find in Just Mercy is Stevenson’s device of alternating chapters about the story of Walter McMillian (a black man who received the death penalty for a murder that absolutely everyone knew he hadn’t committed) with chapters about an assortment of other cases. Though similar to King’s blending of the case of Walter Irvin (his focus in Devil in the Grove) with other of Marshall’s cases, Stevenson does not manage his transitions with the same smooth expertise that King accomplishes. The interruption of the primary story about the tribulations of Walter McMillian was always a jolt, and the introduction of new, unrelated material felt disjointed. I found myself rushing through these catch-all chapters to get to the next installment in the McMillian story. This flaw, nonetheless, does little to distract from the heart-wrenching truths about American justice that emerge.

Stevenson eventually succeeded in getting Walter McMillian off death row, then released from prison—something of a mirror of Marshall’s success with Walter Irvin, with one very important exception: after his release, Irvin was found in his car, dead “from natural causes,” an explanation that was never accepted by the community and never investigated by authorities. Stevenson is able to give a happy ending to Walter McMillian’s story:

"Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. 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." (p. 314 in the Advance Reader’s Edition)

As is so often the case, it is not the imperfect system that is at fault so much as the imperfect human beings who create it and work within it—sometimes corrupt, sometimes blind to the harm to their communities created by their own prejudices, and sometimes both. Reminding us of Jesus’s admonition, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Stevenson’s proposed solution is more compassion, more forgiveness, more mercy, more acceptance of our own “brokenness,” as he calls it.

When I’m reading, I sometimes copy phrases or sentences that catch my eye, that seem to deserve more attention, and I post them on the wall around my computer. As I finish this review, I’m looking at a sentence from Just Mercy: “... embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.” Except when I typed my notes, I omitted the “h” in “show.” I keep returning to that fortuitous and hopefully prophetic typo: “a corresponding need to sow mercy.” That’s what Stevenson has accomplished in his book and in his life: he has sown mercy in the minds of thousands of readers.

This is an important book. It offends, shocks, angers, and disturbs—yet as I turned the final page, I felt hope, the kind of hope that keeps people like Bryan Stevenson at their work of making us all better human beings.
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LibraryThing member mjlivi
Incredible, necessary, heartbreaking stuff. Stevenson is a genuine hero, spending his life fighting for the forgotten and downtrodden crushed by the US' punitive justice system. His writing is clear and powerful, bringing home the awfulness of a system that is designed to punish the poor and the
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black. There are moments of real joy in here as well, but it's a sad, angry book that drives home issues that most of us already know exist with concrete, real-life examples. It's gut-wrenching and stunning - just read it.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Brian Stevenson, author and narrator.
Brian Stevenson is a descendant of slaves and a strong and honorable activist for a justice system that provides fair treatment for all, especially those who are powerless and poor, those who do not have the
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resources for their own defense. He began his career as an intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense Fund. In 1983, when he visited a death row prisoner, as a law student, what he witnessed changed his idea of fairness and equality, changed his direction in life. To his surprise, he learned that some prisoners on Death Row never even had access to legal counsel when they were tried and convicted, or if they did, they had inadequate counsel. He was horrified by their lack of resources to defend themselves.
After graduating, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative, and he dedicated his life to the cause of those people unjustly condemned to death or life in prison. He fights for the rights of all people, male and female, child and adult, and he does it with a commitment that is almost superhuman in order to accomplish goals others before him could not or would not or dared not. Disregarding threats to his life he soldiered on to bring reform and change to the legal system, sadly, too late in many cases.
It is necessary, however, not to cavalierly dismiss the gravity of some of the crimes committed. It is necessary to understand that in addition to defending the rights of those wrongfully accused and sentenced, he also defends and attempts to change the sentence of those who are guilty but have received sentences that seem decidedly unfair and outrageous considering the crime committed. He attempts to alter sentences which do not consider the age of the perpetrator or magnitude of the deed, but are the result of general rules and protocols that must be followed. One must bear in mind that even when some of the crimes committed were heinous, brutal attacks, even murder and rape, Stevenson still believed that the mental state and age of the criminal needed to be considered before trying these children as adults and sentencing them, sometimes to death, and often to life in prison.
Bryan blames a good deal of the crimes committed by the young in a community on their poverty, their environment, their immaturity and their inability to make sound judgments which is a proven scientific concept. However, I believe the community, the parents, and the delinquent child, regardless of age, also share in the guilt and must assume some responsibility for the behavior. The problem for me, however, is not really about who is at fault; it is about appropriate punishment for the crime and appropriate rehabilitation of the criminal. Certainly the sentencing guidelines are outlandish and need to be adjusted to the crimes, the age of the criminals and the magnitude of the offense. Certainly there is a need for some reform of the justice system. When he presents his thoughtful, sympathetic point of view, even if you do not always agree, it will be hard to dismiss his sincere effort and not consider the positive effects of the results he achieves.
Learning about the actual, overt instances of discrimination and fraud in our system of justice was difficult to absorb. The injustices, the corruption, the payoffs, the unqualified experts that testify, the outright manipulation of evidence, the perjury and the arrogance of those in the system expected to protect us all equally, must be cleansed. What I read in this book is nothing less than mind shattering. It illuminated the reasons that people of color distrust law enforcement and the entire legal system. It was stacked against them by a group of people with power who were in control. In the non-white community, many have experienced, or known someone who has been subjected to, the prejudices of the ignorant and weak-minded, but more powerful, evil influences in the justice system. There is no other conclusion than that reform is necessary. Stevenson is dedicated to achieving it, but he can’t do it alone.
Once someone wins his freedom or has his sentence reversed, years have already been spent behind bars. The reentry into society is difficult and Stevenson’s organization tackles that problem as well. As I read, I thought, what can possibly make someone feel comfortable in the outside world when they have been in prison for almost 50 years? That person may be happy to be free, but how will that person thrive. Family and friends might be long gone. They are no longer young. I could not fathom how anyone in that position could possibly adjust. How do you repay someone for robbing them of their life? Yet, if their crime was murder, the victim’s family might well ask, how do you give me back my loved one’s life?
Bryan decided that the reason he has dedicated his life to this mostly thankless job, with its many failed efforts, must be because he is also broken in some way. It is hard to think of him as broken when you learn of the overwhelming gratitude of those he helps, even when he fails them. This book makes you want to get into a closet and scream and scream and scream, railing against the deceit, the treachery, the cheating and the lying that exists, against the stupidity of white supremacy in certain places in the country, at bigots who think the lives of some are not worth as much as their own. The cases described in the book infuriated me. How could anyone, even a mental midget, have convicted these victims of our flawed justice system, when some were so obviously innocent, so obviously framed, and then go home and sleep at night? They are the ones who should be in jail. All of them should be punished for their perjury, their prejudice, their arrogance, their threats and their cruelty. As you read the book you might want to weep for our damaged society, weep for those it damaged. The time lost by these wrongfully imprisoned can never be returned. Their nightmare experience cannot be forgotten. To add insult to injury, they are rarely remunerated in any way for their wrongful imprisonment.
The book does have an undeniable liberal bent. Rulings that stop funding efforts are always blamed on the right with all good results arising from the efforts of those on the left. I cannot believe that this is so, and that is my only real concern about the book and its author. I was disappointed with the slanted presentation which could lead to divisiveness. I am a fiscal conservative. I am not in favor of abortion in the late stages of pregnancy, although I am pro choice. I do not approve of capital punishment unless it is truly beyond a reasonable doubt. I consider myself a liberal when it comes to most social issues, although I sometimes think that abortion and capital punishment have as its end goal, a way to rid the world of the unwanted. I think that Stevenson is working to create a more ideal, just world, in and out of the prison system. We can only hope that his efforts are rewarded, but as he sheds light on the way the prison system’s purpose has become big business and profit rather than rehabilitation and education, a system with irrational sentencing procedures, he sometimes glosses over why we have so many more prisoners in our jails, why there is a lack of patience for repeat offenders. He seems to blame it on outside influences rather than the perpetrator.
He addresses fairness and equality. He addresses how we treat the poverty stricken, the suspected lawbreakers, the victims of a society that “worships capital and dispenses capital punishment”, but he does not address the breakdown of family and the growing absence of faith and moral values.
He eloquently describes the historic institution of laws to prevent the equality of all people that were written even after the Civil War, especially to prevent the mixing of the races and the right to vote. Racial Integrity Laws were instituted. Interracial sex and marriage was outlawed and re-justified every time it was questioned. In 1967 anti-miscegenation laws were finally repealed, but racial strife was far from over. This book should be read by every human being, every student, every teacher, every law enforcement individual, every social worker, every aid worker, everyone involved in what could become the next injustice, and so perhaps prevent it!
The book is read expertly by the author whose dedication and honest concern come through with every word. Although the book is about much more than Walter McMillian, a man betrayed by the system, it is his story that begins and ends it, and his story that will touch the heart of every reader as the symbol of all those others who suffered and continue to suffer from a flawed system. Mr. McMillian was a victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice which tainted his life forever after, but he is just the tip of the iceberg! The corruption was, and perhaps still is, pervasive throughout the justice system. After reading about actual cases of abuse, the reader will find it impossible to fail to realize why people of color and different backgrounds fear anyone associated with law enforcement. The power lies with them, and they are powerless to fight it without the help of people like Bryan Stevenson.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Someone, aware of our interest in the death penalty gave my wife a copy of this stunning book. Stevenson's first person account of his attempts to save people on death row, centers on the story of a man convicted and sentenced for the crime of being a self-sufficient black man in the Deep South.
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That it took as long as it did for this innocent man to be released from death row is an indictment of all of us, not just our criminal justice system. And the story, as Stevenson illustrates, is true for children, mentally handicapped people and poor people generally. It is a difficult book to read and it must be a difficult life to live for Stevenson, but he ends an a profound note of compassion and hope.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
Disturbing, frustrating and inspiring. Reading this book at the time of the Ferguson verdict gave me a different perspective of how the "justice" system has not served so many people. The double curse of color and poverty is hard to overcome. I applaud Stevenson and all all his coworkers for giving
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the imprisoned a dose of compassion and humanity. I found the story of the guard who changed his tune after learning of a prisoner's trip through foster care which was similar to his own. Shows that it is possible to turn over prejudices with understanding.
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LibraryThing member 5hrdrive
My state put a man to death today and it took him over an hour and a half to die. Like I needed another reason to hate the death penalty. I wish everyone in Arizona could read Mr.Stevenson's book, maybe enough people would realize that we don't have to do this anymore. The eighth amendment should
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have made this all clear long ago, we've structured the death penalty in such a way that it's always cruel and unusual. There's no justice found in killing, only cruelty, and we can't trust our government to condemn only the guilty.

My favorite quote from the book: "The opposite of poverty isn't wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice." Read the book, it'll make you think.
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LibraryThing member WCHagen
Bryan Stevenson presents a compelling indictment of the American criminal justice system. Drawing from his personal case files and experience rather than academic sociological and legal treatises, he forcefully and persuasively argues that our system is flawed because it does not provide equal
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justice for all. Initially focusing on inmates on death row awaiting execution but had been wrongly convicted because of inadequate defense counsel or misconduct by prosecutor or police, Stevenson describes the expansion of his effort and the growth of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery, Alabama. The scope of EJI now includes minors convicted and sentenced as adults, the mentally disabled, the poor and other disadvantaged persons including minorities and has represented clients across the country.
The book is not entirely anecdotal. The author sprinkles in supporting statistics and cites to ruling case law including Supreme Court decisions that support his contentions—some of which he was the advocate.
It might be argued that Stevenson offers no specific changes in the law or procedural changes in the administration of justice but that criticism is unfounded. The necessary first step in substantive changes is making the public more sensitive to the issues. This book does that. But justice system changes will not be enough; our societal mores must be realigned. There are four reasons to incarcerate or execute law breakers: to deter others, to ‘cure’ criminal behavior, to exact revenge, and to protect the public. There is ample evidence to show that the first two are ineffective and this book offers many examples to show that protection of the public is, at most, of secondary importance. We are a society of bullies and use the tactics of bullying to exact revenge. Tragically, as Stevenson points out, the focus of bullying is extended to include the entire class of society that the accused seems to represent.
But the issue might even be broader. The underlying objective of bullying is to control the person or class of persons least able to resist. In the criminal justice system, that person is the least able to mount a defense—the immature, the poor, and the mentally disabled and those minorities under-represented in positions of authority.
The one fault in the book is that it might be too strong. The passion Stevenson has for this issue is reflected in the power of his prose and like every good lawyer should, he goes for the jugular. Sober thinkers including the author realize that the biased prosecutors he has faced in court or in the appeals process do not represent all the good and well-meaning prosecutors that play fairly and seek justice. The mere fact that Stevenson himself is the product of law school training controlled and maintained by the justice system suggests that the underlying concepts are valid. If there is a silver lining, that is it and Bryan Stevenson is my choice to advocate for necessary corrections.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
My book club at the St. Vital Library picked this book to read for November 2016. Otherwise I don't think I would ever have picked this book. This is one of the reasons I like belonging to a book club. It brings to my attention books that are thought provoking and touching. I can tell that this
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will be one of the best books I read in 2016 and possibly one of the best books I have read this century.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer working for the non-profit agency Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. The EJI provides legal assistance to people on death row and people sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Stevenson tells how he came to do this work and the struggles to represent some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the USA. Although he talks about many of the cases that the EJI has handled one particular case is highlighted. That is the case of a black man, Walter McMillian, who was convicted of murder on some of the flimsiest evidence ever. The main evidence against McMillian was by a man accused in another murder who made up a story about driving McMillian to the location where the murder took place. There was exonerating evidence including a number of people who alibied McMillian as being miles away at the time of the murder working on the transmission of his truck that was supposed to have been seen at the murder scene. Nevertheless McMillian was convicted and spent six years on death row while the EJI made appeals and submissions on his behalf. When he was finally released McMillian couldn't even go home because of death threats against him. In an irony that wouldn't be believed if it was in a piece of fiction the murder of which McMillian was falsely accused took place in Monroeville, Alabama where the writer Harper Lee set her bestseller piece of fiction about the murder trial of a black man, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not all of EJI's cases involve innocent clients but they all involve people who have been treated unjustly by the criminal courts. One of the most disturbing chapters deals with minors who were sentenced in adult court to death row or to life in prison without parole. It will come as no surprise that most of these children are from minority races.

The title of the book is explained in this passage from page 294:
"The power of just mercy is that it belongs 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."

It would be easy for us living outside of the US to say that we don't treat prisoners or accused the way Stevenson shows in this book. But the fact is that even in a country like Canada that has not had a death penalty since 1976 we have a disproportionate number of aboriginal people in prison. A 2016 article by Maclean's magazine calls Canada's prisons the new residential schools. Up to 36% of female prisoners and 25% of male prisoners in Canada's provincial and territorial prisons are aboriginal even though they only form four percent of the population. We all need to think about just mercy.
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LibraryThing member Darcia
Anyone who believes justice is truly blind - or fair - needs to read this book. Bryan Stevenson takes us deep into the criminal justice system, sharing details of his cases and experiences as a defense attorney working for a nonprofit organization. At its very core, our legal system is skewed in
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favor of the wealthy and the white. Biases and outright racism are justice's dirty little secret.

I read a lot of law-based nonfiction and true crime, and I was already aware of the deep cracks in our criminal justice system. Even so, the blatant racism that still exists within the deep south took my breath away. I found myself at equal turns angry and disheartened. I wondered how anyone could do what this man does each day and not give in to the depths of despair.

Stevenson walks us through his work with inmates on death row. Some are guilty, some are not. The people sentenced to death vary in intelligence, mental health and, to some degree, race. One thing that does not change is that they are all poor. They did not have access to good legal aid. Often they did not even receive competent representation.

While these stories are disturbing, what I found most appalling was the section dealing with children. Here in the U.S., we are making it our mission to try children in adult courts. We hand life sentences without the possibility of parole to prepubescent children, for non-homicide crimes. We're putting 12- and 13-year-old kids in adult prisons, with violent criminals who are very much adults. We treat them like trash, locking them away to keep the prison wheels turning. Part of Bryan Stevenson's work is to help these kids, to commute their sentences to something a bit more rational and humane, and to often be the only caring adult these kids have in their lives.

While nothing about the content is light, Stevenson's writing style is conversational and easy to read. He doesn't use a lot of technical jargon. He doesn't reach for flowery prose or obscure words. This book is designed to be read by the masses, whether you have a simple high school education or a law degree.

Bryan Stevenson's work is commendable. This man is one of those unsung heroes in life. We hold athletes up on pedestals because they can throw a ball, while people like Stevenson make the world a better place without a bit of recognition. We can't all be lawyers. We can't all dedicate our lives the way he does. But we can all pull our heads out of the sand and demand change.
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LibraryThing member mldavis2
This is an important book in the ongoing struggle for fairness and justice, perhaps even more so with the media attention being given to the Ferguson, Missouri shooting in public attention as I write this. The author, Bryan Stevenson, is executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in
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Montgomery, Alabama which he started as a young attorney. Fresh out of law school, Stevenson fought against the unfair bias of southern courts and the so-called justice system in Alabama. It began with attempts to defend innocent persons on death row and expanded to all manner of social injustice in court systems across the U.S.

During the narrative, many cases are referenced, and defense is not always effective. Several cases are described in which judges, juries and other lawyers are guilty of misrepresentation, obfuscation and outright lies. The cases are a grim reminder that we still have a very long way to go to achieve social equality in a country with the highest incarceration rate of any on earth, and argues strongly that each of us is not as bad as the worst thing we've ever done.

This powerful and uncomfortable book should, perhaps, be required reading for civics classes everywhere as well as those who work in the criminal justice system.
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LibraryThing member Janet77
I received an Advance Reader's Edition of Just Mercy from LibraryThing. I am so glad I did because I am not sure I would have picked it up otherwise. This is an incredibly compelling story that really opened my eyes about the criminal justice system. I am certain I will never think the same about
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those facing execution again. While I don't agree 100% with Mr. stevenson's views, I am so impressed by his drive, dedication, and passion for serving those who are in need. This is a great book - I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member londalocs
“Capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.”

Mr. Stevenson shines a bright unapologetic light on the broken justice system in the United States. He told the tragic stories of Americans who have been maltreated and left to die in monstrous penal facilities. His main
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story focuses on Walter McMillian, a wrongly condemned inmate on death row, but he also tells the stories of countless others.

The Prison Industry has made millions on the backs of innocent people who don't deserve the punishments they have been meted.

If you read Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King and were horrified by what happened in the 50's & 60's, then you will be equally horrified at what continues to happen today in the name of JUSTICE.

This is a must read and Mr. Stevenson is a modern superhero. A true defender of the people.

Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member iBeth
I learned about the Equal Justice Initiative recently when they published a report about lynchings. I read this book to learn more about what EJI does. This book kept me turning pages late into the night. Stevenson does a great job of explaining complicated legal issues while staying focused on the
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human cost, to defendants and to communities, of some current practices. I was shocked to learn about the blatant injustice that is being perpetrated right now--not 50 or 60 years ago. America needs to do better. I will definitely remember these stories the next time I am called to serve on a jury.

People who like this book would probably also like Jill Leovy's _Ghettoside._
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LibraryThing member KimMeyer
The best book I've read this year.

I'm not a soft person, but Just Mercy is heartbreaking. And inspiring, hopeful, and redemptive.

Just read it.
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
Bryan Stevenson's experiences working within the criminal justice system reveal the ugly truth that the blind Justice with balanced scales is an appallingly cruel joke in America. Stevenson is a courageous, inspiring crusader trying to right wrongs in a corrupt system poisoned with prejudices and
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rooted in revenge and retribution instead of mercy and rehabilitation.
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LibraryThing member arielfl
If you believe, like Bryan Stevenson, that we are worth more than the worst thing we have ever done than welcome aboard the justice reform train. In this country we care more about punishing people than rehabilitating them and as a result the United States has the largest prison population in the
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world. Bryan Stevenson has worked tirelessly in Alabama to unstack the legal deck against children, the mentally ill, the poor, and minorities who cannot get a fair shake in the legal system. He has formed the Equal Justice Initiative to help the people who have no one else to turn to. This book will open your eyes to the injustice occuring on a daily basis in this country. Bryan Stevenson is a champion for the reform that is needed to get America to end capital punishment, stop treating juvenile offenders like adults, and to decriminalize drug use. This book offers a very thought provoking look att he American justice system. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bryan Stevenson he is an excellent narrator it adds a new level. The contrast between Harvard educated Stevenson, his poor and disadvantaged clients and the racist white southern establishment makes for compelling reading. Holy cow man, some of these cases
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are so terrible and outrageous this was not an easy read. Despite all the sadness there is hope because changes are occurring, if only slowly, due in no small part to Bryan Stevenson and his organization.
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LibraryThing member annbury
I could not put down this book. Stevenson is a remarkable person, because he is a skilled lawyer but does not rip up his obviously racist opponents for their stupidity. He merely remarks that some judges are reluctant to change their mind. He writes about his early history in Atlanta and Montgomery
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and the founding of the equal justice initiative. I was surprised that my wife actually contributed to this firm, which we will do from now on.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that defends the wrongly convicted and those without access to adequate legal representation. In [Just Mercy], Stevenson tells the stories of the people he has defended, focusing especially on the story of
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Walter McMillian, an Alabama man who is on death row for a murder he did not commit. Through these stories, Stevenson shines a light on the problems with the criminal justice system and helps us understand the challenges and triumphs he has faced in fighting those problems. This book is narrative nonfiction at its best, and Stevenson's message is an important one. I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member larryerick
It would be difficult for me to evaluate the impact of this book on those who had already read a great deal about the struggle of minorities and the poor in the legal systems of America. If this is a person's first introduction to the topic, it is an excellent one. Written as a memoir by an
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attorney dealing with a whole laundry list of inadequacies of justice, especially those wrongly accused and sentenced to death, it is often extremely powerful in its very personal style and presentation. On a number of occasions, I had tears in my eyes. Sometimes tears of sadness; sometimes tears of joy and relief; but nearly always manifestations of a reaction to humanity at its most personal and vulnerable but painfully hard fought in doing what must be done to remain fully human. Early in reading this book, I found it easy to relate to the reporting done about Thurgood Marshall in Gilbert King's, Devil in the Grove. In many ways, this was like what would have been Marshall's memoir, only decades later. In that respect, it also unfortunately demonstrated the small degree to which justice has improved for minorities in the Deep South. While certain readers will have varying degrees of new insight about American justice from reading this book, all readers will find a compelling person at the heart of this narrative. In an extraordinary humble manner, the author unwittingly presents himself to us as an intelligent, compassionate, persistent, and personable individual. We can only hope to have real friends so willing to extend their best for us.
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LibraryThing member ohernaes
Powerful account of the work of Bryan Stevenson to provide legal assistance to people wrongfully convicted, or convicted on the wrong basis. The case of Walter McMillian runs as a red thread through the book. McMillian spent six years on death row on the basis of made-up charges by the police,
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before he was cleared in 1993, thanks to the work of Stevenson. Everyone in the book is not innocent like McMillian, but they are all poor and unresourceful in the court system. Sentencing children as adults, prison abuse, racial bias are important themes. Recommended.
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Kirkus Prize (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2014)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — 2014)
Garden State Teen Book Award (Nominee — 2021)

Original publication date



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