A few weeks ago, I wrote the following essay for a scholarship contest The prompt asked me to write about a book that has changed how I see the world. This is what I read. If anyone wants to borrow my copy of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson let me know.
Just Mercy, written by activist Bryan Stevenson has forever changed how I see the the injustice that is built into our criminal justice system. His book is a brilliant commentary on our criminal justice system and specifically our system of sentencing people to death. Stevenson, an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative, has spent his career defending those who have been condemned to the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. In his book, Just Mercy, Stevenson humanizes those that we as a society have deemed as ‘untouchables’. He challenges his audience and he encouraged me to see the humanity in all people, even those that have been sentenced to death.
Stevenson sets out to tell the story of Walter McMillian, one of many people that Stevenson has represented in his time as an attorney. Unfortunately, McMillian’s story is punctuated by a wrongful conviction. Even more unfortunate, Stevenson tells us that McMillian’s story is not unusual. McMillian was sentenced to death after a trial that lasted a day and a half. He had bad representation but worse, the jury sentenced him even after three alibi witnesses testified that McMillian could not have committed the crime of which he was accused. The book which tells McMillian’s story in great detail illuminates the failings of our justice system.
Beautifully woven between the chapters of McMillian’s story, the audience learns of the countless other areas where injustice rules the justice system. We learn about children, the mentally ill, and women who been discriminatorily sentenced to die. Each story that Stevenson tells is punctuated with the injustice in our justice system.
Just Mercy, changed how I see our justice system. I used to believe that it was fair, that it was just. But I quickly learned about the prejudices that turn a system that is supposed to fair, into one ruled by personal biases and systematic oppression. Stevenson showed me that the people that we deem as criminals in our society have struggled with oppression, abuse, mental illness and poverty. But most importantly, Stevenson shows his audience that all people are broken and that “there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy…we begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us” (p. 290).
Brian Stevenson is absolutely artistic in his ability to inject hope in what honestly seems like a hopeless system. In reading his book, I felt hopeless. I cried tears of frustration and found myself angrily discussing the stories with my friends. But Stevenson reminds us that we all need some “unmerited grace” (p. 18) and that “each and every person is more than the worst thing [they’ve] ever done” (p. 17). These moments of Stevenson’s own grace and his own ability to forgive, remind me throughout the book of the hopefulness and humanity that we do find in the world, even in the face of incredible injustice.