Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Review by Andrew H. Kuharevicz
February is Black History Month, and let me start off by saying that Just Mercy (nonfiction) is a great story, and almost should be considered required reading for all Americans. It opens your eyes to the real nature of racial tensions in the United States, as well as brings you down the corridors of our legal and penal system. Like I said, Just Mercy is a great story, and it starts off like this
“I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man…”
Just Mercy is a human story, a true story; it’s a story about the history of the United States that’s still being told during our present moment.
The story is both micro and macro, focusing on the subjective individual sentenced, and on the overall culture of the society we live. Just Mercy is about the problems that plague us and could be taken from the headlines from the news outlets we consume.
The concept of race itself, an idea outdated and scientifically invalid. Socioeconomic inequality and the nature of good and evil, are the driving forces of the book. And it’s a hard topic to discuss when all these variables end with the sanctioned execution of a criminal in the United States. Most citizens have no direct knowledge of the actual details of a case that have led a man or woman to death row. Most of us think in absolutes, and believe that our justice system is infallible, that the guilty are always guilty and a lost eye deserves another eye. Just as often, we have failed to understand the scope of why and how somebody ends up on death row, and how many of the men and women who end up on the chopping block, are victims of a corrupt judicial system. That’s why Just Mercy is an important book. It gives humanity to the dehumanized, and explains facts that most of the readers haven’t heard before.
Just Mercy brings you where hopefully none of us have ever been, down the hallways of death row where some of the most violent are held already guilty by their peers, judged and sentenced to death, waiting for their walk to the electric chair or to die by a cocktail of drugs we call Lethal Injection. It’s a terribly difficult topic because raw emotions give way to illogical feelings, as justice mutates into revenge; the very nature of capital punishment is often a place where democracy and justice transforms into mob mentality, and the book doesn’t so much ask if you are for or against capital punishment, and although the reader can deduce how the writer feels, it’s more of a book of facts and a book about a young man doing his job the best he can.
Bryan Stevenson (author & narrator of Just Mercy) is working for a firm based in Atlanta that councils and advocates for people on death row who couldn’t afford proper legal guidance during their trial. Depicting a framework that has been set in place to divide races and classes, Stevenson retells the history of the United States, and at the beginning of the book he explains how he wasn’t experienced at all in the real world. He says he was wide eyed and idealistic after graduating the university with a philosophy degree. But nobody was going to pay him to be a philosopher, and that’s how he ended up going to law school.
During his internship he works on cases that involve juveniles being tried as adults; Stevenson shows how kids fourteen years of age, and some even younger, are being sentenced to life in prison, and he discusses how the United States executes more minors under the age of eighteen than every other country in the world combined.
Truth is that there is one common denominator in the cases: The individuals sentenced to death row are black and poor, and within the scope of the book, they live down south in a region of America rich in racial segregation, a place where a war for slavery split the United States in two; the south has a history of lynching, and has decades of social problems relating to black versus white and poor versus the wealthy. This is what the book Just Mercy gives to the reader, a story of what has happened and what is going on now.
Just Mercy is about hate, explaining how African Americans have had the cards stacked negatively against them, where often enough if you’re black down south in America, you are guilty until proven innocent. He meets with men who are improperly tried, with abused children who snapped on their adult abusers, and with military veterans and mentally handicap citizens suffering from PTSD. They are all black, and they never stood a chance against a legal system who wanted to throw them away without a single voice standing up for them. And, that is why Bryan Stevenson has written one of the most important books in my opinion ever printed for mass appeal. His story tries to bring the criminal justice system back to what holds the American dream together, which is a place created for all men and women and colors and creeds. Where everybody gets a fair trial, and as a quote from the book says,
“Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”