On Friday afternoon my mum and I went to the beach. It was a bit windy and sand occasionally whipped about our legs and into our faces. The sea was rough too, and there weren’t many people swimming. We ran into a friend who told us that the water was very cold, but I still wanted to give it a try and hurried in anyway. He was right. It took several minutes for me to be completely submerged, and though by then my legs were comfortable my arms couldn’t warm up fast enough; after a few strokes I headed back to our beach chairs. Mummy was relaxing under our umbrella, but I dragged my chair out into the sun. I pulled my book, Just Mercy, out of my bag and spent the next hour and a half reading.
When we got back home mum began frying fish for our classic Good Friday meal, and I read her the most disturbing passage from that afternoon. Just Mercy is a chilling memoir about the American justice system, specifically its handling of criminal cases and the abuse, neglect and victimisation of poor and minority populations. It’s written by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who has devoted his life to representing condemned criminals. The narrative alternates between the story of Stevenson’s developing career and his representation of one innocent man in particular. The passage I read for my mum was from the more general side of the memoir, about a boy who was sentenced to life in prison and, ostensibly for his protection from the adult male inmates, spent 18 years in solitary confinement. When I read about him on the beach I had to put the book down and take a few minutes before continuing. When I read aloud for my mum I made it to the end of the passage and then broke down into tears.
18 years. Ian Manuel was arrested when he was 13 for shooting a woman in the face, and though the two later developed such a close relationship that she advocated for the courts to reduce his sentence, her pleas were ignored.
Just Mercy is full of awful stories like Manuel’s, in addition to the heart wrenching tale of Walter McMillian, the man whose case we follow in the most detail. Stevenson is an excellent writer. Both sides of his memoir are equally engaging and despite its difficult subject matter the book is hard to put down. Each reading experience is intensely emotional; from the very beginning I’ve been having bad dreams. They are vague and unstructured, but the overall themes are impending death, gloom and restriction. I wake up with impressions of prison and feelings of sadness and unease, although I don’t recall any faces or particular storyline.
In addition to sharing his clients’ experiences, Stevenson explains the precedents and shifts in the US legal system, both in terms of the letter and the intent of the law. This paints a fuller picture of the scope of the problem and underscores its connection to other systemic prejudices in US society.
The horrific actions and court decisions reported by Stevenson are more than mistakes, the result of pressured officials or eventually forgivable bad behaviour. The meanness runs deep, and there’s no way to describe some of the cases he reports as anything other than barbaric. It’s unconscionable that human beings can treat one another that way, especially children. It’s frightening to know that these cases have been tried in my lifetime.
Reading Just Mercy on the heels of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass clearly evidences the legacies of slavery and the many issues and attitudes that remain unchanged, despite the centuries between them. I never did find out how Douglass escaped his chains, since he kept this information secret in order to protect the journeys of others. He gloried in his liberty but still had to contend with disenfranchisement. I wonder what he would say if he could read Stevenson’s account now? What about other Americans who lived and died chafing under slavery?
The crimes against the many men and women described by Stevenson are rooted in a poisonous evil that weighs heavy on my heart. I am in awe of this man who has sacrificed so much of himself to be their champion, and am reminded of my own responsibility to do justice and love mercy. His book will stick with me for the rest of my life, and I hope it will influence my own work for the better.