A Reflection On Bryan Stevenson’s Book Just Mercy

Just Mercy is Bryan Stevenson’s personal record of his career as, essentially, a legal aid to those discriminated against by the law. Stevenson could be considered a narrator of this, but the story-like way it is written makes him seem to be more a protagonist. Readers get briefed on his background and history, and we learn his motives behind going into this area of study. I found it oddly endearing that his grandmother was one of the main reasons he found his interest - she constantly educated him on the struggle for equality, as we learn she was the daughter of slaves in Virginia. Right away, I knew this book was going to be extremely swaying, as Stevenson has such a personal account in the matter. The main point Stevenson communicates throughout the book is the fact that there is a problem with the American justice system. He believed it vlified certain marginialized groups and punished others only halfheartedly. From the stories he describes, it’s hard not to feel the same way. Although this is a memoir of many pain-filled stories, I found relief in the fact that they do stem from a greater good. Stevenson was able to meet all these people through the foundation of the Equal Justice Initiative he started with his friend Eva Ansley in Alabama. The program was what allowed Stevenson to speak up for all these men and women victimized by the justice system.

There is an assortment of “victims” he uses as examples throughout the book, all being falsey sentenced of their crimes or just harshly punished. One person’s story, however, is the central narrative of the book. Walter McMillian was a Black man accused of murdering a White woman, Vickie Pittman. We learn that Walter is a somewhat “American Dream” story - he was born into a poor family but eventually became very sucessful as an adult. I think this is part of what makes McMillians story so compelling to me; he had overcame all the adversity faced to him as a child growing up in these conditions, and he still got unfairly treated in the end by the legal system.

Ralph Myer’s story was completely contradictory of McMillian’s - in fact, he’s the man who made the false accusation sending Walter to death row. I found his story very tough to understand emotionally, because part of me despised him for ending another mans life so easily. However, as I read on further I started to have more and more empathy for him. After learning how much environmental interactions can influence adult behaviors, I couldn’t help to almost sympathize with Myer. He was born to a poor socioecominic family, and he suffers from psychological problems stemming from past trauma. He’s initially also convicted for the murder of Miss Pittman, and that’s when he falsly accuses McMillian of it. I start to feel empathy for him once I realized how much he tries to take back his statement. I have always been a firm believer in allowing people the grace to make up for their mistakes, no matter how bad they may seem. I became so frustrated reading how difficult the justice department made it for Myers to, essentially, do the right thing! To me, this is where the evidence of this racial disparity in the system really came to light. It seemed that the law would rather have a Black, easily victimized man go to jail for a crime he didn’t commit, than spend the resources and time to find the true offender.

Eventually, Myers is assisted by Stevenson’s foundation, EJI, and is able to retract his statement, and McMillian is exonerated from his death row sentancing, which seemed to go on forever. I was honestly terrified to read the end of this first section, I didn’t think I could handle the story ending in McMillian’s unfair death. I felt myself release an actual breath of relief finding out he was exonerated from his death row sentencing, as I’m sure many other readers did too.

While there was a lot more information Stevenson covered in this book, I found the personal victim accounts the most gripping, and the most intriguing. Apart from the actual victim accounts, though, he explores a lot surrounding the underlying racial inequalities still present in modern-day America and our justice system. I found the ending quite beuatiful; Stevenson’s description of McMillian’s eventual death and funeral. This is where I really understood how much McMillian impacted Stevenson’s entire worldview. Stevenson basically concludes the book with a simple statement about how there is always room for postiive transformation, and immediate punishment is not always the way. Mercy, just mercy can be the best way to treat even the evilest seeming people.          

16 December 2021
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