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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson — Racism and Criminal Justice in the South

Atticus Finch stands as one of the most compelling fictional portraits of a man devoted to principle above all else, regardless of the personal costs. His defense of a young black man falsely accused of rape due to a casual relationship with a white woman was performed at tremendous risk to himself and his family. The setting that inspired this famous novel, the little town of Monroeville, Alabama and author Harper Lee’s hometown, was a typical town of the Deep South from the early 20th century: virulently racist and ruthless in punishing any transgression of a post-Civil War racial order that resigned black people to the status of second class citizen. The realism of this novel in its portrayal of this fact is sobering: despite Finch’s brave defense, Tom Robinson is convicted and later shot and killed during an attempted prison escape.

Atticus Finch (left), played by Gregory Peck, in the film adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird

We think of the circumstances of this novel as being from another time in the distant past. However, those who experienced the later years of Jim Crow are still alive, and many areas of the Deep South are still haunted by its legacy. Many laws that were put into place to enforce the subservience of black men and women remained on the books until very recently. Anti-miscegenation laws forbidding interracial marriage and sexual relationships where not ruled unconstitutional until 1967, and stigma against them still persists in some places. This stigma was one of the main protagonists in the case of Walter McMillian, the central story of Just Mercy.

The story of McMillian would eventually become a national sensation, featured in the New York Times and on the 60 Minutes TV program. In many ways, it mirrors the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the uncanny detail of its setting: Monroeville, Alabama. Mr. McMillian was a successful black man in this small town, with a thriving logging business and very few run-ins with law enforcement. He was both a bachelor and family man, living with members of his extended family on the outskirts of Monroe County while womanizing. His affair with a married white woman raised eyebrows. Many residents were also concerned with his middle-class lifestyle, and assumed it was drug dealing or something else nefarious that was the source of his wealth.

In November of 1986, an 18 year old white woman, Ronda Morrison, from a prominent family was found murdered in a cleaners. After months of dead ends and false leads in their investigation, the county sheriff was desperate to find a culprit. So desperate, that they were willing to accept any testimony, no matter how suspect. Ralph Myers provided such a testimony. To gain leniency in another murder case that he was a suspect in, he falsely accused McMillian of committing the murder and invented a false narrative of how McMillian had tricked him into being an accomplice. The details of the narrative where very inconsistent with the observed details at the crime scene. However, the investigators where desperate for a suspect, and a black man with a history of relationships with white women was a perfect scapegoat, and one who could be easily convicted by a local jury.

Author and EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson

After a very fast trial featuring an all white jury, McMillian was convicted and sent to death row, a conviction that would not have occurred if he was not black. And this was only as recently as 30 years ago. The result reflects the problematic racist history of the criminal justice system in the South, and how many practices originally designed to enforce racial divisions still persist. Shortly after the Reconstruction period (1865–1877) when the last of federal troops where withdrawn from the South following the Civil War, the southern states rushed to publish a series of laws known as the “Black Codes” that essentially criminalized being a freed slave. These laws targeted miscegenation, “vagrancy”, and civil rights, with laws preventing black people from voting, holding office, sitting on juries, homesteading, or attending public schools. The vagrancy laws were particularly odious, requiring proof of contractual employment at the risk of arrest and forced labor, including convict leasing. This system of peonage was essentially slavery by another name, and its estimated that up to 40% of black men in the South were working as unpaid convict laborers at the beginning of the 20th century.

Peonage laws typically did not specifically mention race, but it was implied and law enforcement acted accordingly. The same circumstance occurs today. Fears of a crime wave in the late 1960s and 1970s led to the passage of laws strengthening punishments for non-violent offenses, and creating a new generation of black people enslaved to the criminal justice system. Our prison population grew from 300,000 in the early 1970s to 2.3 million today. The United States currently has the world’s highest rate of incarceration per capita and the world’s largest prison population. More than a half million people are imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses, up from 41,000 in 1980, and in many cases are forced to spend decades in prison due to mandatory minimum sentences. Children are tried and sentenced as adults, sometimes to life terms and to execution. In all cases, black people are disproportionately targeted.

Evicted sharecroppers, 1936

This mass incarceration has consequences that extend beyond bars. Prior drug convictions result in restricted access to public services, and in the loss of the right to vote. The percentage of people in the black community without voting rights is nearing levels not seen since before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Our current criminal justice system is needlessly punishing and is producing an underclass of non-violent offenders with restricted rights and economic opportunities. And it continues to trap the black community in a cycle of poverty, disenfranchisement and suffering.

This is where Bryan Stevenson and his Montgomery, Alabama based Equal Justice Initiative comes in. The EJI is a legal practice that provides pro-bono legal services to people wrongly entrapped in the criminal justice system. Its initial focus was on high-stakes death penalty cases, and now guarantees the defense of anyone on death row in Alabama. A lifelong bachelor, Mr. Stevenson can be likened to a legal defense monk. His life is wholly dedicated to achieving justice and mercy for victims of the law, and he has sworn off worldly ambitions, such as a family, to do this. The memoir puts most of its emphasis on the early days at the EJI, when the young lawyer moved to Montgomery to found his legal defense fund using philanthropic grants in 1989. Mr. Stevenson vividly describes these headstrong and idealistic early days, where using a shoestring budget and staff he defends a staggering number of clients with a wide variety of legal situations.

For the most part, these narratives are very straightforward descriptions of the events with little filler, and few descriptive details beyond simply the timeline of events and the conversations. The details of these events reflect well on the quality and dedication of the author to his work, as he clearly took copious notes of all his legal encounters. The most emotionally impactful cases receive the most extensive treatment. In addition to the McMillian case, we read of heart wrenching cases of children sentenced to life imprisonment, a mother of six imprisoned on false murder charges for a stillbirth, and a Vietnam veteran with PTSD sentenced to death. These cases are portrayed vividly in heart rending detail.

One of the main goals of this memoir is to leave a strong emotional impression of the trials these individuals go through and the uplift from the grace of mercy. This is where the memoir falters. As side plots to the main criminal defense stories, the author often includes interactions with family, friends, and others at the scene, and while these conversations might very well have occurred, the dialogue has an obvious cinematic quality that indicates it was likely contrived for the effect. These side pieces do have a haunting quality that remain after the book is completed, but in a way that overshadows the core stories and makes them feel out of place. If he ever ventures out from non-fiction, Stevenson would be an excellent short story writer.

Monroe County courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama

The emotional power of these cases, however, is very profound. After the McMillian case is resolved with all charges dismissed, the elation of an entire community can be felt. The case at once confirmed all of the deeply held suspicions of the black community towards the criminal justice system and provided a redemption for that system through the efforts of a group of tenacious lawyers. Sadly, this redemption is few and far between in our punitive system, and should not require such an effort to bring about. The author, in a moment of clarity, seems to see the results of his work in this perspective. As we all do at a certain stage of life, we question the impact of our efforts on the world around us and struggle to continue in the face of seeming insignificance in comparison to the world we inhabit. And this young lawyer at times questions why he does this difficult work surrounded my people and situations that would make the strongest among us weep regularly. His answer is its his own form of redemption, and by working to give mercy to those who would seem to least deserve it, we work to heal our own internal wounds while breaking a cycle of inflicting them on others.

The efforts of Mr. Stevenson and the EJI have done as much as one man and one initiative can do to change a cruel and racist criminal justice system. Given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the widening public awareness of the excessive targeting of the black community by law enforcement, this memoir feels more timely then ever. Though we have come a long way from the explicitly racist systems of the past, there is much more work to do in exorcising the demon of racism that has possessed this country, and much of the world, in the past 500 years. This memoir gives us the hope that if just one man can make such a large difference, maybe the next generation working together can dismantle race-based inequality in legal, social, and economic systems and banish one source of injustice from the earth. Perhaps this asks to much of one group of people, but if we don’t accept this as our guiding star towards our destination, we will never get started on that path. Here’s to Bryan Stevenson for pointing us towards that path, on the shoulders of those who stood for justice and mercy before him.

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