Sunday, September 27, 2015

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


In this day and age, it's very unusual to go a month or a week even (sometimes days) without hearing about some sort of injustice in the criminal justice system. It just seems that there are so many exonerations and overcrowded jails. Our politicians are trying to figure out ways to reduce the prison population. Studies are constantly coming out that cast doubt on parts of cases that were once considered airtight. But most recently, in addition to the racial dynamics that exist between police and suspects, there has been much debate about capital punishment, particularly in light of botched executions.
I heard about this book on NPR and saw it being sold in Starbucks.  In a prior life, I did criminal defense work so I'm always interested in books that come out on this subject and this book in particular intrigued me because it was written as a memoir by a guy that actually practiced and did capital work.  Bryan Stevenson grew up poor and a minority in Delaware and his great-grandparents had been slaves in Virginia. He attended Harvard Law school and afterward began defending poor people in Georgia through the Equal Law Initiative. He eventually moved to Alabama and began capital work.
This book focuses on that work with Walter McMilian's case forming most of the story for it. Stevenson was representing him in the late 80's after he got put on death row for murdering a white woman in Monroeville, AL - if that name sounds familiar it's because it's been made famous by To Kill a Mockingbird. I found myself quickly drawn in to the story. The book does have quirks though that sometimes made it hard to get through. A lot of the stories are 30 or more years old and yet, you get the impression that they just happened last year or are currently happening now. Dialogue has to be reconstituted - there's no way it can be verbatim. There is little that makes you feel connected or intimate with the person in the story, even though Stephenson tries.  I think much is probably because of confidentiality issues, but it still leaves much to be desired.
That being said, we are very familiar with how he feels about things.

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