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Just Mercy

 

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson

Rating: ★★★★½ 

New York Times: Luckily, you don’t have to read too long to start cheering for this man. Against tremendous odds, Stevenson has worked to free scores of people from wrongful or excessive punishment, arguing five times before the Supreme Court. And, as it happens, the book extols not his nobility but that of the cause, and reads like a call to action for all that remains to be done.

“Just Mercy” has its quirks, though. Many stories it recounts are more than 30 years old but are retold as though they happened yesterday. Dialogue is reconstituted; scenes are conjured from memory; characters’ thoughts are channeled à la true crime writers: McMillian, being driven back to death row, “was feeling something that could only be described as rage . . . ‘Loose these chains. Loose these chains.’ He couldn’t remember when he’d last lost control, but he felt himself falling apart.” Stevenson leaves out identifying years, perhaps to avoid the impression that some of this happened long ago. He also has the defense lawyer’s reflex of refusing to acknowledge his clients’ darker motives. A teenager convicted of a double murder by arson is relieved of agency; a man who placed a bomb on his estranged girlfriend’s porch, inadvertently killing her niece, “had a big heart.”

For a memoir, “Just Mercy” also contains little that is intimate. Who has this man cared deeply about, apart from his mother and his clients among the dispossessed? It’s hard to say. Almost every­thing we learn about his personal life seems to illustrate the larger struggle for social justice. (An exception: a scene where he is sitting in his car, spending a few minutes alone listening to Sly and the Family Stone on the radio. “In just over three years of law practice I had become one of those people for whom such small events could make a big difference in my joy quotient.”)

But there’s plenty about his worldview. As Stevenson says in a TED talk, “We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.” This way of thinking is in line with other pronouncements he makes throughout: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” They are like phrases from sermons, exhortations to righteous action. “The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”

The message of this book, hammered home by dramatic examples of one man’s refusal to sit quietly and countenance horror, is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made. “Just Mercy” will make you upset and it will make you hopeful. The day I finished it, I happened to read in a newspaper that one in 10 people exonerated of crimes in recent years had pleaded guilty at trial. The justice system had them over a log, and copping a plea had been their only hope. Bryan Stevenson has been angry about this for years, and we are all the better for it.

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