One has only to read newspaper headlines to know that there are people in prison (some women, but mostly men) who shouldn’t be there, who should never have been there. The justice system has failed them and it’s only years later, if ever, if there’s an exoneration. This New York Times column is just a most recent example of how the system fails those wrongfully convicted.
The story that Bryan Stevenson tells in this memoir is of a justice system that goes off the rails, that makes it so very hard to try to prove a negative, that a convicted defendant didn’t do what he was sent to prison for. Once the prison doors slam shut, opening them takes years of patience, dedication, the overcoming of enormous odds, and a degree of faith that the system will eventually right itself with respect to this defendant.
A Summer of Significance
Stevenson was a student at Harvard Law when he spent a summer in Atlanta at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). One of his assignments was to go to the Georgia death row to tell a condemned man, Henry, that he wasn’t going to be killed in the next year, as he was still without counsel to represent him. As a law student, Stevenson was filled with trepidation as how he might be received. Henry’s reactions to the message that Stevenson relay were one of gratitude and one of hope, despite the odds. Stevenson was stunned.
That summer spent at SPDC changed the trajectory of Stevenson’s career. After graduating Harvard Law, Stevenson returned to Atlanta and the SPDC. What follows in the book are the stories of people Stevenson represented both at the SPDC and eventually at the Equal Justice Initiative in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Stevenson is the Executive Director there.
Fighting for Delayed Justice
The stories that Stevenson tells in this book are compelling, all the more so because they are all true. Wrongly convicted people sitting on death row, people on death row who had exhausted every last avenue to avoid execution, the story of a woman sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for delivering a stillborn son, juveniles locked up for life without possibility of parole. These are just a few of the stories that Stevenson tells. It’s not just the stories of the people he represents; it’s the ripple effect of these stories, the impact on the families, the friends, their communities and the criminal justice system which is, at times, criminal.
There are victories, but not many. Stevenson convinced the United States Supreme Court to ban life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP) sentences for non-homicide crimes as well as banning mandatory LWOP sentences for all juveniles Trial courts now have to hold hearings on not only whether the punishment fits the crime for a juvenile, but also consider a juvenile’s individual character and life circumstances. No longer has does one size, e.g. death-in-prison, fit all juveniles. Reading the litigation strategies and tactics in the various cases was fascinating. What were even more compelling were the stories behind the cases, the families, relatives, and friends who never gave up hope that the miscarriages of justice that their loved ones had suffered would be rectified. The stories are of compassion, of loyalty, of faith and the unswerving belief in the justice system’s ability to right wrongs, even decades later. It’s also about the collaborative relationship between lawyer and client, when sometimes it’s the client who gives the attorney the wherewithal to keep going. Even when the outcome is heartbreaking, Stevenson says that “there is still work to do.”
Not Just Another “Fight the System” Book
There have been some books about the criminal justice system that have made me want to throw that book against the wall when I’ve finished because I’ve been so outraged by the system that smacks more of injustice than the justice we lawyers are supposed to pursue. John Grisham’s non-fiction book of some years ago, The Innocent Man, is one of those.
Just Mercy is not in the same category, although at times it is equally infuriating about the system that we lawyers are to protect and defend. His memoir is a fascinating read that conveys the very essence of what our oath as lawyers means. Yes, the justice system does get it wrong, and yes, it can be enormously frustrating and debilitating in efforts to correct such wrongs, but the sense of Stevenson’s book is one of humanity that every single person in his memoir had and has something worth saving, worth fighting for, worth a measure of justice. The people he represents are not wealthy; they are the poor, the forgotten, the locked up with the key thrown away.
Should the death penalty be abolished? This country has gone back and forth on that question for decades, as have the individual states. Executions in some states have been abolished (for example, in 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill that replaced the death penalty with LWOP); while in other states, the execution marathon continues. Here in California, proponents and opponents are gearing up for yet another battle over the future of the death penalty.
In habeas proceedings, the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at trial is often raised. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but Stevenson says it is critical to spend time with the client for effective advocacy. Knowing the details of a client’s life contextualizes the client’s poor decisions or violent behavior. There have been a number of cases, especially in the Deep South, where that claim has been recognized as a basis for reversal, sometimes of just the penalty phase, but sometimes of the guilt phase as well.
One story stands out. It is the story of a prison guard who treats Stevenson in brutal fashion whenever he goes to the prison to visit a mentally disabled client on death row. The guard then accompanies the client to the three days of his mitigation hearing that Stevenson presents on the ineffective assistance of the client’s trial counsel. The guard listens to testimony as to how the client had been unimaginably brutalized in foster care while a juvenile, which led to drug use, psychotic episodes, and eventually being convicted of murder. The client was severely mentally impaired due to organic brain damage, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
After the hearing, but before the outcome is known, Stevenson visits his client and notices that the same guard has now a noticeable change of attitude toward the lawyer. The guard had had no idea about the previous life Stevenson’s client had endured and tells him that “we all need mitigation at some point.” Stevenson won a new trial for the client and ultimately got him off death row and into a facility where he could receive mental health treatment. What happened to that guard? Read the book to find out.
The question for Stevenson is “…not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question swirling around capital punishment in this country is “Do we deserve to kill?” ” Reasonable people can and do disagree on the answer, and if your mindset is Hammurabi’s code of “an eye for an eye,” then this is probably not the book for you. However, if you’re willing to consider other points of view and you understand that the rate of exonerations based on DNA evidence and recanted testimony based on faulty eyewitness identifications continues to grow, perhaps you can consider and perhaps even accept that there should be less of a rush to justice. You may not change your mind, but your thinking may become more nuanced on this issue.
Stevenson’s thesis is that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice, that is, that the true measure of our justice system is how “we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” This book is a story about justice, justice for those whom Stevenson describes, whom he comes to respect and care about, regardless of their circumstances. They never give up hope. Hope is what they need to keep going. However, realities often outstrip those hopes, as well as their families’ hopes that the justice system’s is willing or able to right wrongs. It is people like Stevenson who work tirelessly to try give them hope, to balance the scales.
By Bryan Stevenson
336 pp. Spiegel & Grau. $16.
 Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010); Miller v. Alabama 567 U.S. 183 (2012)