UPDATE | By Cathryn Ibarra, Civil Justice Attorney, Legal Access Division, SBOT
Inspiring. Moving. Infuriating. Motivating. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a true story written by Bryan Stevenson, manages to inflict all of these feelings and more as one reads about the potential for mercy and redemption in our imperfect justice system.
While perhaps not a typical “beach read”, I could not put the book down. And for those of us who went to law school hoping to change the world in some small way, this book serves as a great reminder of the impact an attorney can have on the lives of those struggling to be heard.
As a law student, Stevenson, like so many aspiring Atticus Finches, knew he wanted “something to do with the lives of the poor, America’s history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another.” He found his calling through an intensive course on race and poverty which enabled him to work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Georgia. Meeting the desperate and imprisoned on death row transformed law school for Stevenson from an abstract and disconnected academic exercise into something truly relevant and critically important.
Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to helping those often forgotten: the poor, women and children, people struggling with mental illness, and the innocent who have been wrongly incarcerated. Stevenson committed to helping people who had been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.
This book centers on Walter McMillian, one of Stevenson’s first cases. McMillian, a young black man who was sentenced to die for a murder he maintained he didn’t commit, was sent to Alabama’s death row before a trial even took place. The case was full of conspiracy and politics, corruption and racism, and a window into the legal tap-dancing that moves these cases through our justice system. Interwoven with the McMillian narrative are other cases where the Equal Justice Initiative advocated for marginalized men, women, and children from around the country.
While Just Mercy focuses on some of the obstacles indigent defendants face in our country, it speaks to a larger problem we see: the struggle people in poverty face when seeking justice of any kind. Fighting for access to justice is not glamorous work. It is hard, it is exhausting, and it is demanding. It is worth every moment.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, 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.
Just Mercy is unforgettable. The devastating stories do not leave a reader without hope. It is instead an inspiring account of why we need compassion in the pursuit of justice.