“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” by Bryan Stevenson

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“Just Mercy,” won the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Best Non-Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the NAACP Image Award for Best Non-Fiction.

“The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth.  The opposite of poverty is justice.”

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

-Bryan Stevenson

“Just Mercy” is a powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice.

Introduction just-mercy-jail-cell

• From the 1970s to 2014, the U.S. prison population has increased from 300,000 to 2,300,000; the highest incarceration rate in the world.

• One in every fifteen babies born in 2001 is predicted to spend time in jail. One in three black males born in this century is predicted to be incarcerated.

• The United States has sent a quarter of a million children to adult prisons and jails, some are under the age of twelve.

• The number of women in prison has increased 640 percent in the last thirty years. • Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion in 2014.

• Private prison builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people locked up so that they can earn more profits.

• Through his work with the poor and the incarcerated, Stevenson concludes that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.

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Discussion Questions:

1. “Just Mercy” begins with information about Bryan Stevenson growing up poor in a racially segregated community in Delaware. He remembers his grandmother telling him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close” (p.14). How does Stevenson get close to the incarcerated people he is helping? How does getting close to Walter McMillian affect Stevenson’s life? Can you be an effective criminal lawyer without getting close?

2. Early in the book, Stevenson describes an incident when he was racially profiled and the police searched his car. He wonders, if there had been drugs in his car and he was arrested, would he have been able to convince his attorney that his car was searched illegally? Stevenson says, “Would a judge believe that I’d done nothing wrong? Would they believe someone who was just like me but happened not to be a lawyer? Someone like me who was unemployed and had a criminal record?” (p.44). How does Stevenson’s work shape his understanding of the justice system? Do his experiences make him more or less empathetic to those in the justice system? Is it surprising that someone whose 86-year-old grandfather was murdered would work so tirelessly against the death penalty?

3. As a result of his extensive work with low income and incarcerated people, Stevenson concludes that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice” (p.18). What does this statement mean? What examples in the book inform Stevenson’s position on poverty and justice? What is justice? What does “Just Mercy” mean?

4. Stevenson describes numerous workarounds within the United States legal system. We learn that nearly every prisoner on death row had been tried by an all-white or nearly all-white jury, despite a Supreme Court ruling in the 19th century that declared excluding black people from jury duty unconstitutional. Why do you think black people are excluded from the juries of black defendants? What factors should influence jury selection?

For an interesting discussion of this issue see this podcast:

http://www.wnyc.org/story/object-anyway/

5. Stevenson was interviewed by Terry Gross on the National Public Radio show Fresh Air. When asked about the McMillian case, he says, “…it was challenging because even when we presented all of that evidence— and we presented Mr. McMillian’s strong alibi, the first couple of judges said, ‘No, we’re not going to grant relief.’ It took us six years to get a court to ultimately overturn the conviction. And I think it speaks to this resistance we have in this country to confronting our errors, to confronting our mistakes.” Is there a lack of humility in our justice system? In America? Why does it take so much time, effort and perseverance to get the legal system to confront its mistakes? How could this be changed?

6. Stevenson provides examples of defendants whose mental illness is never mentioned at trial. Why do you think mental illness often goes unaddressed at trial? Should it be considered? If so, what are fair ways to try/treat individuals with mental health issues? What is our responsibility to people with mental health issues when these individuals become involved in the justice system?

7. Many United States citizens will find this book painful to read, demoralizing and even shameful. What kind(s) of emotional state(s) did the book bring up in you? Is this a book about combating racism? What is this book about?

8. Readers from varied backgrounds will approach this book with different knowledge and experiences. Did Stevenson’s examples resonate with you, or were you shocked? Is the book an eye-opener for you, or validation of what you already knew? Consider how your reaction would differ if you were of a different race or class; were the victim of a serious crime; or had personal experience with the justice system.

9. The United States’ use of the death penalty differs from other countries’ use. For instance, Germany abolished the death penalty after the Holocaust. In India, where the death penalty is legal, only a handful of criminals have been executed since the turn of the century. What do you know about other countries and their position on and enforcement of capital punishment? How might politics, religion, culture and/or history play a role?

10. In The New York Times, Ted Conover says Stevenson: “has the defense lawyer’s reflex of refusing to acknowledge his clients’ darker motives. A teenager convicted of a double murder by arson is relieved of agency; a man who placed a bomb on his estranged girlfriend’s porch, inadvertently killing her niece, ‘had a big heart.’” Stevenson believes the bomb builder never intended for the bomb to explode. Does it matter whether Stevenson’s clients are truthful? Should their honesty affect how well he defends them? Why?

11. What did this book teach you about the legal process in the United States that you did not know already? What questions do you still have, and how might you find the answers? What resources are available for people in Madison who need help navigating the legal system?

Disclosure: These questions are largely replicated from the Go Big Read: University of Wisconsin Madison Common Book Program website.

Just Mercy: The Stories

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Walter McMillian

“Mr. Bryan, I know it may not matter to you, but it’s important to me that you know that I’m innocent and didn’t do what they said I did, not no kinda way.”

Walter McMillian was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman who worked as a clerk in a dry clearing store in Monroeville, Alabama. There was no tangible evidence against Mr. McMillian. He was held on Death Row prior to being convicted and sentenced to death. His trial lasted only a day and a half. Three witnesses testified against Mr. McMillian and the jury ignored multiple alibi witnesses, who were black, who testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. The trial judge overrode the jury’s sentencing verdict for life without parole and sentenced Mr. McMillian to death.

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The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned McMillian’s conviction in 1993 and prosecutors agreed the case had been mishandled.

McMillian was free but the trauma of his time on death row caused long term mental disabilities including dementia.  McMillian died at home on September 11, 2013.

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Trina Garnett

Proscecutor’s charged Trina Garnett, a 14-year-old mentally disabled girl, with second-degree murder after setting a fire that tragically killed two people in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was tried in adult court and sentenced to die in prison.

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Joe Sullivan

A court sentenced Joe Sullivan (39 in this picture) to die in prison for an offense that happened when he was 13. A severely mentally disabled boy, Joe was blamed by two older boys for a sexual battery that was allegedly committed when they broke into a home together.

The lawyer who represented Joe in his one-day trial has since been suspended from the practice of law, and the biological evidence that could have exonerated Joe was destroyed in 1993.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) took on Joe’s case as part of a national litigation project to challenge death-in-prison sentences imposed on young adolescents. EJI petitioned the Florida state courts to strike down Joe’s sentence, but the state courts dismissed Joe’s case. EJI appealed Joe’s case to the United States Supreme Court, and Joe’s sentence was vacated as unconstitutional when the Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that children cannot be sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide offenses.

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America incarcerates more people, both on an absolute and a per capita, than any other nation on earth.
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Jimmy Dill

The State of Alabama executed Jimmy Dill on April 16, 2009, for capital murder, in spite of serious concerns that he did not receive the adequate legal assistance necessary to ensure a reliable conviction and sentence in his case. Because he was poor, Mr. Dill had only an appointed lawyer whose pay was limited to $1000 and who did not investigate or present evidence in Mr. Dill’s defense. Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners.

The Author:

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Bryan A. Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is  1985 graduate of Harvard, with both a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government and a JD from the School of Law.  Mr. Stevenson joined the clinical faculty at New York University School of Law in 1998.

Stevenson has been representing capital defendants and death row prisoners in the deep south since 1985, when he was a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 1989, he has been executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, nonprofit law organization he founded that focuses on social justice and human rights in the context of criminal justice reform in the United States. EJI litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

Stevenson’s work has won him national acclaim. In 1995, he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Award Prize. He is also a 1989 recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award, the 1991 ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and in 1996, he was named the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year by the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers. In 2000, Stevenson received the Olaf Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden for international human rights and in 2004, he received the Award for Courageous Advocacy from the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Lawyer for the People Award from the National Lawyers Guild.

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