Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Spiegel & Grau, 2015
368 pp., $16.00
Our Shared Brokenness
Walter McMillian spent six years on Alabama's death row before his conviction was overturned in 1993. The details of the case make it hard to understand how far officials were willing to go to maintain his guilt. But it's the way Stevenson shapes the story that makes the narrative compelling. A mixture of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, from both of which he draws frequently, Stevenson relies upon memory instead of legal argumentation, and he turns to dialogue and flashbacks to heighten the dramatic arc of the story. Key dates are given, but more often he prefers vague references to "one evening" or "months earlier," a strategy that makes all the events seem like they happened recently. The result is that even when McMillian is finally freed, the reader is left with the sense there are others like him still in prison—the task is far from being completed. At the end of this book there is hope, but there is no room for a triumphant standing ovation.
As McMillian's case unfolds across eight or nine chapters, Stevenson intertwines stories of other cases, so that all the odd-numbered chapters are devoted to McMillian while the even-numbered chapters include stories about the women, children, and the mentally ill or disabled whom Stevenson has represented over the years. Of course, not all of Stevenson's clients are as innocent or sympathetic as McMillian. Herbert Richardson, for example, was a Vietnam War veteran who unintentionally killed a ten-year-old girl when his attempt to win back his girlfriend by saving her from a bomb—of his own making—exploded in the girl's hands. Despite "compelling mitigating evidence," I can imagine some readers thinking it is justified when Richardson is executed. But reading Richardson's story in between chapters about McMillian can have its own mitigating effect, so that when Stevenson writes the following passage at the end of Richardson's story, we really have to think about the differences between McMillian and Richardson and about whether those differences justify capital punishment:
The next day there were articles in the press about the execution. Some state officials expressed happiness and excitement that an execution had taken place, but I knew that none of them had actually dealt with the details of killing Herbert. 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.
For those of us unfamiliar with what that actually involves, Stevenson includes those stories too, of last moments and the people involved after judges and juries make their decisions and go home. In the end, Stevenson tells us, "the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?"
Even if Stevenson were to succeed in convincing people that the answer to the last question should be no, he wouldn't revel in winning the argument. No reader will think Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, a white Methodist couple in their seventies, took the easy way out when they all but adopted Charlie, a 14-year-old African American boy who was sexually abused while detained in adult prison for shooting his mother's violently alcoholic boyfriend. When Stevenson tried to warn the Jennings that helping Charlie might be exceedingly difficult, Mrs. Jennings replies, "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." Again and again, Stevenson shows how doom can be avoided when compassion and mercy are the driving forces of justice. When that happens, even a prison guard with a Confederate flag tattoo is able to find some common ground with a disabled black inmate through their shared experience in the foster care system.