Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson was an amazing biography of sorts from the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama and professor at NYU Law School. Stevenson has argued multiple times before the Supreme Court and won the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and his work initially focused on representing death row prisoners and since has included the cause of helping youth imprisoned as adults and serving life sentences.

Stevenson in 1983 was a Harvard Law student working in Georgia on an internship and he notes in the book visiting a death row inmate and how many of those on death row didn't have anyone that would represent them in appeals, and in some cases they wound up there after convictions that included uninterested defense council. In 1989, Stevenson opened a law center dedicated to providing free legal service to those on death row in Alabama and a quote of his at the end of the introduction was "the true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."

Much of the story is around the case of Walter McMillian, a black man in Alabama sent to death row after being convicted of the 1986 murder of an 18 year old woman, even though he was at a family gathering of dozens during the time of the murder. McMillian was arrested based on the testimony of someone implicated in another murder and who agreed to testify against McMillian in exchange for a reduced sentence. When that person recanted his story prior to trial, he was sent to death row, again, prior to any conviction, and then moved back to a more standard prison once he again agreed to testify against McMillian. Stevenson began representing McMillian after his conviction and sentence of death and the first effort Stevenson made to get him freed came when someone came forward with evidence that made the states corroborating accomplice witness testimony impossible, and that person was immediately arrested for perjury in an attempt to intimidate them. Eventually, McMillian was completely exonerated in 1993, five years after being sentenced to die in prison.

Stevenson later in the book wrote of death sentences being handed down to the mentally ill and mothers wrongly convicted of murder after having a stillborn baby, along with children being tried as adults and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Covered towards the end was how Stevenson argued before the Supreme Court on this question of children serving life sentences, especially as a result of crimes committed at 13-14 years old or non-homicide crimes, and in May 2010 the Court ruled that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children convicted of non-homicide crimes is cruel and unusual and not permitted.

It was a well-written book from Stevenson and really a sobering read on cases of extremely unjust punishment.