Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Book Review

“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is, in my opinion, one of the most important memoirs written in recent memory. In fact, Just Mercy is more than a memoir. It is story after story of people for whom there was no justice, for whom there was no mercy.

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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Book Review

Cover of the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
  • Author: Bryan Stevenson
  • Published: October 21, 2014
  • Type: Non-fiction
  • Genre: Memoir
  • I purchased from Amazon and read on Kindle

My thoughts about Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Inspiring. Gripping. Heartrending. Devastating. Stirring. Significant…I’m finding it easier to describe this book in single words than in sentences because it was so powerful. It shook me and changed the way I think about poverty and justice and prisons. This is an important work that we should all read and ponder and then move forward in any way we can to make this world better.

Bryan Stevenson is a gifted attorney who started the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. This is a legal practice dedicated to defending not just the poor and the wrongly condemned, but also the children who are incarcerated in adult prisons as young as age 13, and the non-violent women who are trapped in jail only because they don’t have money for a defense.

Stevenson works for, upholds, and defends the needy and the desperate. One of the saddest quotes from the book states, “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.” We have a system in which your ability to pay does far more to determine the outcome of your case than does your guilt or innocence.

One of the main cases that Bryan Stevenson discusses in the book is that of Walter McMillian. This was the well documented ordeal of a man in Monroeville, Alabama who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder that he didn’t commit. He was a poor black man who was outrageously railroaded by law enforcement, the judge, the lawyers and jury. The book follows McMillian throughout. His story as well as his friendship with Bryan Stevenson is touching and heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. Towards the end of the book Stevenson says, “Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

Although Walter McMillian’s story provides the backbone for the book his isn’t the only tale that Stevenson tells. Just Mercy contains account after account, all horrifying and compelling and rending, all told unflinchingly. Many of the cases described are the result of intentional racism and others are examples of how poorly our criminal justice system works.

Bryan Stevenson’s stories of defending people who were put into the system as children were particularly devastating to read. He says about one of those who had been incarcerated as a young teen, “I watched Joe, who laughed like a little boy, but I saw the lines in his face and even the emergence of a few prematurely grey hairs on his head. I realized even while I laughed, that his unhappy childhood had been followed by unhappy, imprisoned teenage years followed by unhappy incarceration through young adulthood. All of the sudden, it occurred to me what a miracle it was that he could still laugh.”

I admire the way Mr. Stevenson writes. This is a work of style and clarity. The subject matter is painful, but the actual reading is easy due to his coherence and manner of his writing. Mostly I admire Mr. Stevenson the person, the lawyer, the activist. As a new lawyer with degrees from Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government he gave up wealth and acclaim to pursue civil rights law in the South.

Throughout this book you feel his desire to make a difference in his writing. You sense a calmness in his demeanor that comes through in reading of this book and I suspect even more so in person as Mr. Stevenson meets with his clients.

I think we can all recognize that there is a danger in writing a book about ones own good deeds. But I never felt that Bryan Stevenson was grandstanding or driven by his own ego. In fact, it was just the opposite. One of my only quibbles with the book is that there is very little in the narrative that allows us to know Mr. Stevenson the human, instead of Mr. Stevenson the lawyer.

He does not make himself the story. His clients are the story. His cause is the story. His call to action is the reason for the writing. Everything we learn has to do with social justice, his work, his clients, but very little about the man himself. Perhaps, for me, he took too much care to take the focus off of himself. I would have liked to have known more about him.

But I also recognize that in the hands of a lesser man this could have been a self-aggrandizing memoir. It isn’t.

I encourage you all to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Official Blurb from Good Reads:

A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice—from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

Graffiti on wall in Little Rock, Arkansas. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption - Book Review

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