Review: Just Mercy

“Walter didn’t say anything as I explained the situation, but he had a strange, despairing look on his face.” page 120

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
My edition Spiel & Grau, Random House, New York, 2019; originally published 2014.
Adult nonfiction, 354 pages.
Lexile:  1130L  .
AR Level:  not leveled
NOTE: The 2019 edition has a movie tie-in cover and extra postscript, otherwise I assume it’s the same as the previous version.

The story of Bryan Stevenson’s work with prisoners condemned to death, in particular the story of Walter McMillian – a man on death row for a murder he could not possibly have committed.

Just Mercy cover resized

Several years ago, I read a report from Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative team that was insightful and searing.  His personal book, Just Mercy, was already on my wishlist, but I wanted to prioritize reading it.  Well, time went by, I even checked it out from the library and read a few chapters but had to return it due to another hold, and I had read so much about Just Mercy that I kept assuming that I’d read the actual book, until the new cover made me pick it up and realize somehow I’d missed it.

That happens in life sometimes, and luckily books are usually still around to find later.  This time I purchased the book, and with a weekend mostly free, breathlessly read through the entire book.  If I thought EJI report was well done, it was only because I had yet to experience Stevenson’s impressive narrative style.

Opening chapters cover how Stevenson got involved in criminal justice defense in the south.  He sets the scene for where he’d be working with incidents like being stopped, frisked, and having his car illegally searched for listening to the radio while parked outside his apartment.  If an erudite man like Stevenson faced such racism routinely, you can guess that it’s nothing compared to his clients, who tended to be poor, undereducated, lack community or family support, and in a few cases even committed the crimes they were arrested for.

One man who definitely did not commit the crime was Walter McMillian.  He is guilty of something, but it isn’t the murder of Rhonda Morrison, or anyone else for that matter.  There’s clear and blatant evidence that he could not have possibly committed the crime.  No, what Walter was “guilty” of was having an extramarital affair with a white woman who later descended into drugs and took up with an even more unsavory character who saw her former lover as an easy pin for a criminal confession that might help him keep himself out of jail.

While the main focus of the book is on Walter McMillian, there are two other main threads.  Of course Stevenson’s own life – his journey to the law, his call to work on innocence cases, the twists and turns that led him to where he’s ended up.  The other thread is all the other cases.  During the most suspenseful periods of Walter’s case, Stevenson pulls back and takes the next chapter in a different direction, telling us about one (or several) more case which illustrates some other point he’d like to make.

At times I found this very clever, at others it was simply maddening.  It certainly kept me reading though, even when I probably should have been doing something else.

Stevenson goes through stories of children given life sentences for nonviolent crimes, women imprisoned because a medical examiner falsely identified their stillborn children as drowned, people with severe mental illness in lockdown for non-violent crimes, young teens sent to adult prison populations and victimized or isolated.  Most of these stories could have been a book on their own, but Stevenson wisely commits most of his time to Walter’s story.

Though every story he includes is interesting, it’s Walter’s tale that is truly gripping, and maddening.  This is an important read, especially for those who are unaware of, or unwilling to admit the truth of, institutionalized racism in the United States.

Highly recommended.  In fact, I went back and got the Young Reader’s Edition, so I’ll be back someday with a review of that book.  Hopefully it won’t take a few years.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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