Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

I’ve written in the past about empathy (no longer a fan), as well as about being a carnivore (a fan of it, mostly).  But I haven’t written anything about mercy.  That topic will, no doubt, get covered more than adequately in this review.  So you’re in luck.

Just Mercy is a knockout of a book.  I say that because there are times when reading it comes almost as a physical blow.  Bryan Stevenson has written something special here, and it’s a shame that I took so long to pick it up.


This isn’t a light and fluffy book.  It’s a book about crime, and about how we, as a society, choose to punish that crime.  He’s covering some heady topics here.  Stevenson is an acclaimed attorney who handles primarily death penalty cases (though the book is about more than those, by a long shot).

I think we all share the responsibility for what happens to those among us who have the least power.  That applies to questions of poverty, questions of race and class, and most definitely to questions about our criminal justice system.

I started this review several years ago, when I first read the book. Due to a series of events that were totally in my control, I never ended up posting it. I think it’s very timely, though, with the Jamie Foxx/Brie Larson/Michael B. Jordan film adaptation hitting theaters last week!

In the course of my young life, I hadn’t thought much about the death penalty at all until the day my parents went on a date to see Susan Sarandon’s Dead Man Walking. After they got home, we had a family conversation about the fundamental unfairness of a system that is dedicated to taking the lives of people as punishment for doing something our society universally condemns: taking the lives of people. The irony was not lost on me, even as a high schooler. If murder is wrong, then we shouldn’t be murdering even more people. It has seemed very clear to me from that point on.

And yet we live in a society where that policy decision is NOT considered clear-cut and straightforward. As I write this, the death penalty is still legal in 29 states. Beyond that, mass incarceration remains a bigger problem for the United States than any other country on Earth. We currently have more than 2.3 million people locked up. Whether that is a good thing or a bad one, the continued decision to arrest and incarcerate and kill our fellow man rests on the backs of us all, not one person or one political party or one philosophical leaning.

Unlike these trials themselves, where the sociological context of alleged criminal activity is all-too-often ignored in favor of a simplistic placement of blame on one person, I believe that we have an individual responsibility to consider that greater context for ourselves and decide whether we can stomach the consequences of supporting continuing injustice.

This book is about the author’s journey through struggling with some of his own feelings about that larger system, while also exploring many stories of accused or convicted folks that he has worked to free (or worked to prevent their sentence of capital punishment from taking place). It’s a very readable account of one man’s struggle within a legal system that appears to sometimes care far too little about those that fall within its purview.

Reading Just Mercy made me angry, made me cry, and made me hopeful for our future. It made me so glad that we have folks within the legal system, like Mr. Stevenson and countless others, who are on the side of justice (and yes, mercy).

 The book isn’t only about the death penalty. It’s about the fallibility of prosecutors and judges and law enforcement, even prosecutors and judges and law enforcement that are passionate about justice and public safety and doing the right thing. I’ve never believed that wanting to make fairer decisions about legal consequences should make one anti-law enforcement. Police officers and others who are a part of this system do what they do because they want to make the world a better place. Nobody sets out to intentionally perpetuate injustice.

But here’s the rub: our criminal justice system is flawed in some pretty fundamental ways. That’s because it’s made up of human beings, and human beings can sometimes make fundamentally flawed decisions. Just like every other system that touches us all on a daily basis, there is entrenched racism and sexism and classism and prejudice and other factors that end up sometimes leading to some pretty awful unintended consequences.

 Mercy, I would argue, isn’t about ignoring the wrong someone has done. Mercy is about being in a position of power and acknowledging that we don’t ever have all the answers. That even having the ability and power to kill or the power to lock a person in a box for eighty years doesn’t mean that we SHOULD. That we can believe in rehabilitation, or our own limitless ability to learn from our own mistakes. Even if our mistakes are awful ones. Mercy looks like grace to me. Mercy looks like forgiveness.

If these are topics you care about, and if you want to be part of making a difference (even as an educated bystander), I’d encourage you to read this book. Watch the movie if you’d like–I understand that it’s well-done. And I’m sure the film will reach folks that wouldn’t ever pick up the book, which is a positive thing. But no movie could ever pack this many amazing stories into two hours of screen time. I loved Just Mercy, and I’d suspect that you would as well. Give it a shot!

Buy it here.

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