Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau, New York, NY, 2014, 349 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
“Bryan Stevenson is one of my personal heroes, perhaps the most inspiring and influential crusader for justice alive today, and Just Mercy is extraordinary. The stories told within these pages hold the potential to transform what we think we mean when we talk about justice.”
- MICHELLE ALEXANDER, author of The New Jim Crow
January 24, 2020 (San Diego) - It is ironic that the aforementioned Michelle Alexander would give praise for this book by Bryan Stevenson, as both authors and their books are winners of the NAACP Image Award for their similar takes on justice and redemption. Actually, Michelle Alexander won the NAACP Image Award in Literature shortly after this writer interviewed her in San Diego for my review of her book The New Jim Crow.
Another author giving praise to Bryan Stevenson and Just Mercy is Susan Neiman, author of Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, who was recently interviewed on our “East County Magazine Live!” radio show and references Stevenson in the interview here.
This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. It’s also about a dramatic period in our recent history, a period that indelibly marked the lives of millions of Americans – of all races, ages, and sexes – and the American psyche as a whole.
Stevenson makes references in this book to the smell of flesh burning from the condemned being executed in the electric chair, as a way of getting us closer to the stark realities of what those closest to this experience must have felt.
From one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time comes an unforgettable true story about the redeeming potential of mercy. Bryan Stevenson was a gifted young attorney when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a notorious murder he didn’t commit. The case drew Stevenson into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship – and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Perhaps Stevenson’s powerful Epilogue in his book about Walter McMillian says it all:
“Walter died on September 11, 2013. He remained kind and charming until the very end, despite his increasing confusion from the advancing dementia. He lived with his sister Katie, but in the last two years of his life he couldn’t enjoy the outdoors or get around much without help. One morning he fell and fractured his hip. Doctors felt it was inadvisable to operate, so he was sent home with little hope of recovery. The hospital social worker told Stevenson that they would arrange home health and hospice care, which was sad but dramatically better than what he feared when he was on Alabama’s death row. He lost a lot of weight and became less and less responsive to visitors after returning home from the hospital. He passed away quietly in the night a short time later.”
For me, the poignant and painful story of George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old black boy, who was executed by the State of South Carolina on June 16, 1944, resonates with me and pulls at my heartstrings. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for the parents of this young boy to see him strapped down in the electric chair and bolts of electricity sent through his body killing him. Talk about “Just Mercy”.
Stevenson points out in his book, that three months earlier and prior to Stinney’s execution, two young white girls who lived nearby in Alcolu, a small mill town where the races were separated by railroad tracks, had gone out to pick flowers and never returned home. Scores of people across the community went searching for the missing girls. Young George and his siblings joined the search party. At some point, George mentioned to one of the white adult searchers that he and his sister had seen the girls earlier in the day. The girls had approached them while they were playing outside and asked where they could find flowers.
The next day, the dead bodies of the girls were found in a shallow ditch. George was immediately arrested for the murders because he had admitted seeing the girls before they disappeared and was the last person to see them alive. He was subjected to hours of interrogation without his parents or an attorney present. The understandable anger about the death of the girls exploded when word circulated that a black boy had been arrested for the murders. The sheriff claimed that George had confessed to the murders, though no written or signed statement was presented.
George’s father was summarily fired from his job, his family was told to leave town or else they would be lynched. Out of fear for their lives, George’s family fled town late that night, leaving George behind in jail with no family support. Within hours of announcing the alleged confessions, a lynch mob formed at the jail-house in Alcolu, but the fourteen-year-old had already been moved to a jail in Charleston.
A month later, a trial was convened. Facing charges of first-degree murder, George sat alone in front of an estimated crowd of fifteen hundred white people who had packed the courtroom and surrounded the building. No African Americans were allowed inside the courthouse. George’s white court-appointed attorney, a tax lawyer with political aspirations, called no witnesses. The prosecution’s only evidence was the sheriff’s testimony regarding George’s alleged confession. The trial was over in a few hours.
An all-white jury deliberated for ten minutes before convicting George of rape and murder. Judge Stoll promptly sentenced the fourteen-year-old to death. George’s lawyer said there would be no appeal because his family didn’t have the money to pay for it.
Despite appeals from the NAACP and black clergy, who asked that the sentence be converted to life imprisonment, Governor Olin Johnston refused to intervene and George was sent to Columbia to be executed in South Carolina’s electric chair.
Small even for his age, the five foot two, ninety-two-pound Stinney walked up to the chair with a Bible in his hand. He had to sit on the book when prison staff couldn’t fit the electrodes to his small frame. Alone in the room, with no family or people of color present, the terrified child sat in the oversized electric chair. He frantically searched the room for someone to help but saw only law enforcement personnel and reporters. The adult-size mask slid off George’s face when the first jolt of electricity struck his body. Witnesses to the execution could see his “wide open, tearful eyes and saliva dripping from his mouth.” Eighty-one days after being approached by two young girls about where flowers might be found, George Stinney was pronounced dead. Years later, rumors surfaced that a white man from a prominent family confessed on his deathbed to killing the girls. Recently, an effort has been launched to exonerate George Stinney.
Stevenson states that the Stinney execution was horrific and heartbreaking, despite the fact that it actually occurred before he was born, and it reflected the racial politics of the South more than the way children accused of crimes were generally treated.
This stunning and provocative book by Stevenson has captured the imagination of the country recently, generating a new discourse on capital punishment, and resulting in a movie with the cast of Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. As a matter of fact this recently released movie of Just Mercy has generated a Screen Actors Guild Award for Foxx for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Also, former NBA star Kobe Bryant celebrated the movie by standing with the author and the stars of the cinema event in downtown Los Angeles. I can’t wait to see the movie!
Perhaps it is the NBA legend and basketball savant, Kobe Bryant, lending his imprimatur to the movie version of Stevenson's book, will have the most impact on the overall story. Kobe, pictured here, standing here with the actors and actresses in this movies, says it all.
Dennis Moore has been the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor of SDWriteway, an online news magazine for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine. Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.