Just Mercy: A Hopeful Cry For Justice
As I lived in Lehi, Utah for most of my life, I realized that I have grown up somewhat sheltered. My parents were fearful of sending me to high school afraid of what I might hear, even overly cautious while taking a trip to New York City; my mother telling me to close my eyes when I saw something particularly disgraceful. It became clear to me that after some time I was starting to become shocked when exposed to unfamiliar ideas, similar to how most of the Americans close their eyes to the realities of the justice system today. Many Americans grow up believing that our Justice System is fair, as it should be, and never question it. This is where Just Mercy comes into play. Bryan Stevenson, a Social Justice Activist, Lawyer who specializes in representing minorities and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes a compelling story woven with truth and sincerity. This is surprising many who are unfamiliar with the justice system’s process and with what goes on behind the closed doors of a courtroom. Just Mercy is a loud plea to Americans as it sheds light on our flawed justice system and demands changes to be made. Stevenson uses a combination of tone, clarity, and irony, as he invites readers to feel the injustice, prejudice, and horrors some Americans continue to face today.
Stevenson tries consistently to set a hopeful, optimistic and clear tone throughout the book. After Stevenson’s first encounter with someone on death row, Henry, Stevenson realized how truly humane Henry was. The only words he can seem to fill the space are, “I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry uh, okay, I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student...” (Stevenson 9). Automatically, he creates a very personal tone and shows his understanding of who the audience is. He was once an unaware American and an inexperienced law student, unsure of what was going on behind the scenes. As Stevenson encounters numerous cases his tone stays personal and as his relationship with the justice system evolves, he starts to develop himself as someone who cares about humanity, someone who understands, and someone who will “beat the drum for justice” (Stevenson 46). During Walter’s case, there were many close friends and family members who felt deep heartache and worry, as he was wrongfully accused and put on death row. Stevenson was constantly looking to comfort them and provide hope. Throughout the trial, his tone stayed hopeful and encouraged others to do the same. This idea of ‘beating the drum,’ is what motivated Stevenson to hardly ever turn down a case. His word choice of “beating” creates a provocative tone, while strongly supporting justice and the changes needed to be made to be loud and clear, similar to a drum. He creates an encouraging tone that allows the audience to give the convicted the benefit of the doubt and motivates the audience to promote justice as well.
Stevenson speaks with a clarity that one does not have to be a lawyer, a law professor, a social activist, or educated with the justice system at all to understand his message. He perceives his audience as average Americans and by doing so, he eliminates jargon and speaks their language when he simply states, “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving” (Stevenson 314). There are numerous ways he could have described who deserves mercy, but he chose to do so with such clarity and so simply. Anyone who reads it will understand, which appeals to a broad audience and allows his words to become available for all. The use of clarity and hopefulness work together to solidify his credibility. His personal stories would not have such a sensitive effect if it were written abstrusely. When the audience is capable of understanding the heavy topics discussed--such as murder, rape, or abuse - it allows their trust in the author to deepen. Nobody is going to get behind something they do not understand. It then creates space for conversation, new ideas, and change, which is Stevenson’s whole purpose of writing this book. As Stevenson chooses to intelligently speak with clarity, he achieves his goal and reaches his audience.
The most ironic element about this book is how an honest man, Walter McMillan, is placed on death row for a crime he had never even considered committing. This idea behind death row is that it is used primarily for people who are deemed as “evil”.
Following the tragic story of Walter, Stevenson picks up a searing paintbrush and paints this idea that maybe it is the system that is evil after all. Walter lost more than six years of his life fighting for the innocence he already possessed; this leads the audience to ask, who is the real murderer here? The irony is found when we understand the intentions of the Justice System: to monitor crime and punish those who infringe them. Yet, Walter had violated no law of murder.
Walter’s case was not the only ironic and wrongful conviction. The title, Just Mercy, creates an oxymoron and demonstrates a rhetorical point. Though 'just' and 'mercy' are seemingly opposites, Stevenson frames the idea that having a balance of the two promotes equality in the justice system. He illustrates this through the story of Charlie. Charlie was a smart and careful fourteen-year-old boy. After being convicted of murdering his mother’s abusive boyfriend, he was tried as an adult and held in an adult facility where he was repeatedly raped. Keep in mind that Charlie was still a young boy. Stevenson heard about his situation and he worked to represent Charlie; he succeeded in moving him to a juvenile jail. Ironically, what was considered “just” was sending the fourteen-year-old boy to an adult jail. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (Stevenson 17-18), and Charlie had been through a lot. Considering the man, he killed, George a police officer, was regularly beating and harassing him and his mother. Knowing this, one can better understand why Charlie must have felt like murder was the only way to escape the abuse. The corruption within the justice system protected George, though he had committed serious and abusive crimes, thus compelling the audience to see the injustice and feel outraged for Charlie's harsh punishment. Knowing that people are getting fair and lawful punishments can bring peace when it is deserved, but when it is unfair it becomes unsettling - like Charlie’s situation. It was uncomfortable and saddening to read because Charlie should not have been put in prison at all, let alone an adult prison where he was abused by other inmates. It hurts to see people getting wrongfully treated and it hurts when they are wrongfully accused. This is what makes Just Mercy ironic: the justice system is, in fact, not just at all. With these examples, the audience is allowed to properly reflect upon the atrocities within justice system, further strengthening his argument.
The woven pattern of tone, clarity, and irony solidifies Stevenson’s purpose of Just Mercy, end violence and the abuse of power. During Stevenson’s first encounter with someone on death row, he compelled his audience to feel the disparity of that environment. Stevenson declares, “we all need mercy, we all need justice, and--perhaps--we all need some measure of unmerited grace” (Stevenson 18). After everything he has seen, what he has endured, he has realized one thing: everyone needs and deserves a little mercy, something we lack in our justice system. Stevenson’s words take apart our shelter, lift the blinds, and clean the windows, opening our eyes and letting us see for ourselves what goes on in the justice system. After aching along with the victims in these delicate and personal stories, my heart was touched, and I began to wonder what changes I can make. How can I “beat the drum for justice” too? Maybe for a start, I can choose to keep my eyes open.