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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 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.
I have a little over an hour commute each way 5 days a week. I've been listening to audio books during my commute just over two years. It’s made a big difference in my life. Now I feel guilty on the days I just listen to the radio.
Narrators play an important role.
I was so happy to learn that the author narrated this book. However, he’s a little bit flat. The first hour or so of the book was pretty dry and I didn’t know if I would even continue listening. I’m so glad I did. It’s been a long time since a book really made stop and think. I had to keep pausing the audio to take a few minutes to think about things.
When I would share pieces of the book with friends or co-workers and tell them how troubling/alarming I felt certain instances were their responses were pretty similar. They all said something along the lines of there had to be more to it and someone couldn’t possibly be sent to death row or prison at those ages/for those crimes. I would nod and say ‘you have to read it.’
Around this same time at a work lunch the topic of the death penalty came up. One of my co-workers strongly voiced her support of the death penalty and said things like what are we waiting for? Why does it take so long? Just kill them and save us some money. My stomach knotted. This is my co-worker, who I genuinely like and trust and value the opinion of. I just responded, “but, sometimes we get it wrong.’
This book made me question our justice system on every level, my country, my peers and myself. That’s a first. Even with all that required reading in my past.
There were many moments that really hit me in my core. But, one stand out moment, was when the author, as a young black law student was stopped by police in his own neighborhood for doing absolutely nothing, and was compelled to run. That is where the book grabbed me and sucked me in. Of course it would be his instinct to run and how terrifying what the outcome could have been if he’d followed his instinct. When he mentioned that his neighbors started coming out I initially felt relief and thought well thank goodness, they will give those cops the what for and set them straight! But… no. They didn’t do that.
Spending a good chunk of my early childhood in a pretty poor neighborhood I knew that cops and justice aren’t always exactly good or fair. And I saw a few alarming things even in a middle class predominantly white neighborhood in my teenage years. And, of course we’ve all been watching the news the last few years. So I didn’t go into this book with rose colored glasses. But, I had no idea what I was in for.
Bryan Stevenson is one of the good guys. One of those people that you call angels on earth. We should all thank God for him and his work and his commitment to the forgotten, neglected or misjudged.
23 of 24 people found this review helpful
Unfairness and racism in the Justice System is a major them of our age. DNA analysis exposes false convictions on regular bases. The predominance of racial minorities in jail and prisons denote a systemic bias. “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson is a memoir that personalizes the struggle against injustice in the story of one activist attorney. The information in this book covers many years but its message could not be more important considering what is happening around the country. For example the problems in Ferguson Missouri and other cities with the police killing black suspects.
Stevenson grew up poor in Delaware. His great-great parents had been slaves in Virginia. His grandfather was murdered in a Philadelphia housing project when Stevenson was a teenager. The author attended Eastern University and then Harvard Law School. He represented poor client when he worked for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta Georgia. Later he moved to Montgomery Alabama and co founded the Equal Justice Initiative.
The book tells the story of some of his clients. Its narrative backbone is the story of Walter McMillan a death row case from the 1980s. McMillan lived in Monroeville Alabama the home of Harper Lee who wrote the book “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Stevenson also tells the about the case of Evan Miller age 14 who got a life sentence for murder. Stevenson took the case to the United States Supreme Court in 2012. The Court held that mandatory life sentences without parole for children violated the eighth amendment.
The book is a page turner. But it is also a book of hope. The author’s faith in both the power of redemption and the possibility of justice keeps him and other like him challenging the unjust system and laws.
I have this past year been reading about the Supreme Court. I noted a lot of 5 to 4 splits by the court. This book revealed that in the author’s civil case against a District Attorney who knowingly and with malice withheld evidence that proved the defendant not guilty. The Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 ruling stated that the DA could not be held accountable even if he purposefully committed a crime. Justice Ginsberg wrote an outstanding dissenting opinion in the case.
I could not put the book down; it is full of information on a justice system and social order that needs to be transformed. The author narrated the book.
14 of 16 people found this review helpful
If you could sum up Just Mercy in three words, what would they be?
heartbreaking, compelling, powerful
What other book might you compare Just Mercy to and why?
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michele Alexander, they are two very eye opening accounts of mass incarceration in the modern age.
What about Bryan Stevenson’s performance did you like?
Hearing the author read is always better in my view than having an actor read. The accent, cadence, and pronunciation are on point. Bryan Stevenson's reading of his accounts is correctly emotional, and very motivating.
If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Alabama, you got the weight on your shoulders that's breaking your back.
6 of 7 people found this review helpful
The fact that I come from a Death Penalty state and haven't thought about it one way or another is appalling. But "Just Mercy" really made me think, and feel, my way through the tangles in my mind.
At first, I did some eye-rolling as I thought Bryan Stevenson was going to be "humble" yet self-aggrandizing at the same time. Not so by a long shot. The man is a hero, through and through--a stone-catcher of the most extraordinary kind ("Let he who is without sin, catch the first stone"). Nobody can remind us all that we are all flawed, that we are all greater than our worst deeds. And the man throws himself between those of us who would destroy others even as we avoid looking at ourselves.
The book tells us many stories, each of which really showed me that I've been looking at things the wrong way (i.e. I'm right, the world's wrong). It's pretty astounding because sure, there are flat-out innocent people condemned, but there are also people who are guilty but whose intent was different from what the courts insisted, guilty but who were too young to really know what they were doing, and guilty, period. But who are flawed and broken people, just like the rest of us.
Stevenson tells each story with compassion, with wisdom, with love, and he narrates his own work well, a solid 4-star performance (which is fantastic considering a LOT of authors shouldn't read their own work).
This is a great, great book that made me realize that I'm more than my fears of other people. And thank God, I'm more than my biggest mistake.
15 of 19 people found this review helpful
About perseverance; about other cruel layers of poverty; about sacrifice; about forgiveness; about humanity at it's weakest and the potential of it's strength; about fear.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
This book has informed my views and awakened empathy that I didn't realize were shallow and dormant. I have worked in many corporate environments -appalled at the prevalence and perpetuation of discrimination, incompetence, politics and bureaucracy. The impact of these practices on human lives being dismissed and thrown away without any regard is appalling - I have cried no less than 6 times while reading this book. Thank you Mr Stevenson for your belief and unwavering advocacy for the children, adults, family and communities facing such incredulous challenges with the legal system. Thank you for the data to support, inform and expose the prevalence of unjust mercy in existence today. And, thank you for making just mercy a cause that I now understand and am committed to support in small personal moments with people around me and for the good of the community.
8 of 10 people found this review helpful
This is an astonishing, compelling, harrowing, gripping, shocking book.
It’s the true story of a young African American lawyer in modern times who defended the most marginalised, forgotten condemned people in the prison system of the Deep South.
It is an expose of the tragic stories of people either on death row or sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Some of these people are innocent; others have committed crimes but have received disproportionately severe punishments (where mitigating circumstances, such as severe mental illness, young age or extreme provocation, have not been properly considered).
The litany of mistreatment is profoundly disturbing: poor legal representation (due to dire poverty and denial of access to court-appointed lawyers); rigged all-white juries; endemic institutionalised racism and corruption; children, denied access to juvenile legal processes, getting life sentences in adult prisons - where they are then sexually abused and traumatised; cruel punishments such as solitary confinement in tiny overheated spaces, and so on.
As a black lawyer he also had to tolerate racial harassment and intimidation from a significant proportion of officials with confederate, segregationist attitudes. He was routinely strip-searched (when white lawyers would get no more than a pat-down) and had to overcome deliberately obstructive and abusive behaviour, as well as enduring death-threats.
It is truly heart-warming and deeply moving to hear how this lawyer (and his team) bravely devoted most of his waking hours to getting justice for victims of an unfair judicial system, but his limited resources inevitably restricted him to being able to take a relatively small number of cases. Logic implies that there must be thousands of desperate people in similar predicaments elsewhere in the Deep South and wider USA who will never be helped.
You can’t help but appreciate the heroic efforts of this man to free the lucky few from harsh and unfair sentences, but sadly, the big picture for many people is one of poverty, racism, and injustice.
Despite this bleak assessment, I wholeheartedly recommend this excellent book.
9 of 12 people found this review helpful
Bryan Stevenson is thorough, heartfelt, and genuine in his description of the ways in which our justice system is failing the most vulnerable in our population. Interweaving narratives with history and criminal justice education, Stevenson makes his work accessible and compassionate to the reader while still conveying the overwhelming nature of this issue. A long listen, but well worth it.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Societies are judged by how they treat their least fortunate members. But most of us aren't aware of the injustices perpetuated in our own country.
"Just Mercy" gives us a glimpse into the unjust, corrupt and inhumane world of the U.S. criminal justice system and one man's struggle to help its victims.
If you only read one book this year, this should be it.
Have a box of tissues handy.
3 of 4 people found this review helpful
“I…believe that in many parts of this country, and certainly in many parts of this globe, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth… I actually think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice… Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it's in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.” –excerpt from Bryan Stevenson’s 2012 TED Talk
Bryan Stevenson has written an extraordinary memoir in which he describes his career as a lawyer and activist. For more than 30 years, Mr. Stevenson has taken on the mantle of defending the poorest among us. On this book, he skillfully chronicles his relentless fight to raise public awareness of the biases and racism that are so embedded in the United States Justice system, a system that at times seems unable or unwilling to correct even its most glaring mistakes.
His clients include prisoners in death row, neglected children prosecuted as adults and placed in adult prisons as well as mentally disabled people unable to receive attention to their special needs.
This book might shock and upset you, it might even make you mad, but by the end it'll also leave you with a sense of hope and optimism, after you learn how activists like Stevenson are tirelessly working in improving and helping correct important aspects of the legal system in the United States.
After reading some of the cases described on this memoir, it would be easy to let cynicism and bitterness set it, but as the extended title of the book suggests, this is also a story of Justice and Redemption. The author explains how in the middle of finding so many indignities and injustices, as well as plenty of obstacles and hostility towards his cause, he's also found compassionate and sympathetic people willing to help in surprising and unexpected ways.
For a book that’s non-fiction, “Just Mercy” it’s a real page turner. It is written in simple, accessible language and although it’s categorized as a memoir, Stevenson spends little time on the book talking about himself or his background. The majority of the book is dedicated to recounting the details of some of the cases he’s been involved in throughout his career.
The book stars in 1983, when as a 23 years-old, Harvard Law student Stevenson takes an internship at the Atlanta-based Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. It’s there where he’s first introduced to death row prisoners and these first experiences helped propelled his decision to become an advocate instead of choosing a more profitable career path.
There’s a passage in the book where Stevenson recounts how, after recently moving to Atlanta, he was questioned by the police just for sitting in his car listening to music in front of his apartment. He actually ended up with a gun pointed to his head and was let go only after proving that this was his place of residency.
In 1989, he moved to Alabama, a state with some of the harshest,most severe capital laws in the United States. He then founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization where he still serves as its Executive Director today.
Although “Just Mercy” details more than a dozen cases, it focuses in particular on Stevenson’s fight to free Walter McMillan, an African-American man, who was falsely accused and convicted of killing Ronda Morrison, a young store clerk white woman.
McMillan’s crime was basically having an affair with a white married woman. When the community grew impatient with the lack of developments in the case of Morrison’s death, the police found in McMillan, who was a married himself, a perfect suspect. They ignored the fact that he had not connection or knew the victim, had an alibi in the form of several people that were with him at the time of the crime, and was, the romantic affair non-withstanding, a well-liked and exemplary citizen with no criminal record.
Ironically, these events took place in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. It’s almost poetic (in) justice. Walter McMillian’s trials and appeals took place in the 1980's and 1990's, not in the 1930’s, but one can’t help drawing parallels between Bryan and Walter and their fictional counterparts Atticus and Tom. Unlike Harper Lee’s fictional character and fortunately for McMillan, Stevenson did win the case to free him. But the road to get there was certainly a long and painful one.
During the next few years, Stevenson and his colleagues investigated the McMillan case and, in the process exposed how corrupted authorities at every level conspired to build a false case against him.
Here’s a sample of some of the many rules and laws that were broken in the case of McMillan:
•McMillan was placed in death row 15 months before his trial even began.
•Police officers coerced witnesses into fabricating false testimonies in order to build a case.
•The Jury selection process was clearly racially discriminatory.
•Prosecutors failed to provide defense lawyers with crucial exculpatory evidence.
Even in the face of these new evidence, the trial Judge denied Stevenson’s motion requesting a new trial.
It wasn't until CBS's 60 Minutes and other national news outlets called attention to the story, that the State Prosecutor decided to open his own inquiry. After re-examining the case, the investigators concluded that “There is no way that Walter McMillan killed Ronda Morrison”. Six weeks later the Alabama Appeals court reversed McMillan's conviction and shortly after dismissed all charges.
It would be easy to dismiss the case of Walter McMillan as something of an anomaly, but as the case of McMillan unraveled throughout the book, Stevenson also exposed the disgraceful ways in which our Justice system treats minors.
Here are some interesting facts about the execution of juvenile offenders in the US***
•Beginning with the first in 1642, at least 366 juvenile offenders were executed. Twenty-two of these occurred during the current era (1973-2005), constituting 2.3% of the total of the 949 executions during this period.
•Of the 38 death penalty jurisdictions in the United States (37 states and federal), 19 jurisdictions have expressly chosen a minimum age of 18, 5 jurisdictions have chosen an age 17 minimum and the other 14 death penalty jurisdictions use age 16 as the minimum age.
•Essentially every other nation in the world has joined international agreements prohibiting the execution of juvenile offenders, with only the United States refusing to abandon its laws permitting the juvenile death penalty.
•Roper v. Simmons was a landmark decision in which the Supreme Court held that execution for crimes committed at an age less than age 18 is prohibited by the United States Constitution.
***Source: “DEATH SENTENCES AND EXECUTIONS FOR JUVENILE CRIMES” by Victor L. Streib Ella and Ernest Fisher Professor of Law -Ohio Northern University-2005
Stevenson points out how as a society, and with the help and advances in Developmental Psychology and Neurology, we have come to the understanding that kids and teens are not responsible enough to vote, drink or smoke, and yet in plenty of cases, we still allowed for the Justice System to charge minors as adults.
In “Just Mercy”, Stevenson also chronicles the stories of many minors, some of whom are guilty of committing serious crimes, including homicide. But he makes a very convincing argument that many of these kids are themselves victims of neglectful and abusing parents, rape, mental disabilities and a lack of access to a decent education system.
Although we have stopped the practice of putting teens in death row, the number of minors that are in jail for life due to crimes other than homicide is still staggering.
Walter McMillan died in 2013, only 10 years after he was exonerated from death row.
He was in bad health but as Stevenson’s remarks “He remained kind and charming until the very end, despite his increasing confusion from the advancing of dementia”.
Stevenson is today, along with his mentor, Stephen Bright, one of the nation’s most influential and inspiring advocate against the death penalty. He and his EJI colleagues have obtained relief for over one hundred people on Alabama’s death row, and won groundbreaking Supreme Court cases restricting the imposition on juveniles of sentences of life without parole.
Several times while reading this book, I broke down in tears, sometimes due to a deep sense of empathy with so many people that have endured so much pain for so long, the realization that probably many have died without having a chance at receiving justice, but also shame at my own ignorance and indifference to these issues.
And yet reading this memoir gave me hope. As Stevenson’s says “No one is as bad as the worst thing they've ever done”, it is that kind of perspective that makes this such an inspiring read.
At the end of the book, there’s a note where the author provides a link to the EJI’s web site for people that might be interested in working with or supporting his organization.
Here is the link:
This book is recommended for anybody who is interested and cares about Equality, Reconciliation and Racial justice in the United States.
As a final note, Bryan Stevenson does a wonderful job at narrating his Memoir.
It truly enhanced the experience for me.
6 of 9 people found this review helpful
Lots to reflect on our own society, the story challenges the reader to heal the hurt in their society and that it can be done.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Performance and story are all perfect. Really do hope more people read to empower people to fight for what is right in society.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Highly recommend this beautifully written memoir.
Bryan's reading of it is masterful and the stories in it really stay with you.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
How humbling and sobering this book has been. never have I read a book as honest emotionally, psychological and as clear as this.
No review can give this book justice. I dealt with so many emotions. Strength in honest and sometimes "dishonest" people is what I have learn most. the power of mercy and honesty as never narrated before.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
This is a book that reminds us of humanity, forgiveness & Mercy. It is a must read
I'd heard Brian on the Ezra Klein show and wanted to read Just Mercy. I thought I'd try it as an audio as he narrated the book. I believe that the books power was effectively transferred through Brian's reading. Brian is a truly great man, and I thoroughly enjoyed, whilst saddened, hearing his story
What an unforgettable book! I felt pity, sadness, rage, I even smiled and laughed occasionally. I wanted to know the outcome of Bryan's efforts on behalf of his clients, cheering when he succeeded, mourning when he couldn't help. Most of all, I was uplifted by Bryan's story, I urge you to listen to it.
An amazing book. The highs and lows described are beyond anything most of us will experience in our lifetime and I am filled with admiration for this author.
A remarkable account on human injustice and how even small actions can make a difference.
If you are for or against capital punishment you should read this book to help you determine why you believe what you do.
Engaging story with a great narrative.
An amazing book and opens the eyes and the heart.
How sad that despite knowing how precious life is, it can be treated with such contempt.
Yet - there is hope.
Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable person: inspirational, humble, devoted to the cause of helping those who most need help. His reading was masterful & heartfelt. Very moving.