Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Hardcover, 336 pages Pub October 21st 2014 by Spiegel & Grau ISBN13: 9780812994520

There is definitely something amiss with my view of crime. I read crime mysteries and police procedurals for pleasure, but reading about crime from the other side—innocence and guilt or suspects and law or the possibility that the criminal justice system can be wrong—makes me anxious and fretful. I don’t like crime. It seems like weakness.

What I have come to see is that crime can occur on either side of a prosecution or conviction: the accused can be guilty of weakness or legal counsel can be guilty of weakness. Both are crimes, but they are not always pursued with the same diligence. It is this travesty of justice that is so disturbing.

My judgment of ‘criminals’ had always been that they made a mistake, sometimes just a little mistake, but they should pay for their crime. If they killed someone, that was a big mistake, and those folks should also pay for their crime. I wasn’t going to worry about the death penalty since they didn’t. The world has too many huge problems to worry about the life of some murderer. One can make a mistake, one just has to pay for it. I trusted the system worked…that if the crime was really manslaughter or had some other mitigating circumstances, that the courts would battle it out. I was more concerned with justice for the victims of crime.

In a discussion over the death penalty with family, my mother mentioned that we couldn’t apply the death penalty anymore because sometimes the convictions are wrong. Mistakes are made. Bryan Stevenson shows us that sometimes it is not mistake, or ‘accident’ that an innocent black man, or child, is chosen to stand guilty for a crime committed. Sometimes it is malice and intentional prejudice that such things happen in the United States, not just in the past, but now. Today. In that case, if mistakes, accidents, or purposeful crimes are committed against the accused, we cannot use a death penalty, morally. End of conversation.

This book tells us some of Stevenson’s early cases, some he won, some he lost. Midway through his account of working on wrongful imprisonment cases in the south, Georgia and Alabama, he recounts in detail the release of a inmate on death-row for six years, Walter McMillan, on whose behalf he’d been working for at least two years. We are hungry for the details, how it played out, if McMillan got compensation, if anyone was held responsible for wrongful imprisonment. It’s a story that makes one angry and grateful, all at the same time.

Below please find a 30-minute TED talk by Bryan Stevenson that explains some of the things he’s learned since he began working with death-row inmates. This TED talk comes when he is in his early fifties. This book was written in 2014, two years later. He began working with the Southern Center for Human Rights in the summers from Harvard Law School when he was in his early twenties. That’s nearly thirty years working and learning all about wrongdoing on both sides of what we call a crime.

Let’s admit something here: Stevenson is an unusual man. He says in that TED talk that he learned that people are more than their crimes. That may be true, but I am not as forgiving as he is. How he got to that safe place in his head begins to sound like Mother Teresa among the lepers…helping those with the least resources among us. It occurs to me that he could not live if he didn’t forgive, with all that he has seen.

But he has looked at the criminal justice system as closely as anyone so we have to ask: Can capital punishment ever be fair? What is justice? He makes the point that incarceration has become an industry which can perpetuate racial injustice, and he makes an impassioned case for why we shouldn’t charge juveniles as adults.
”We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity….if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears…if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable.”
Justice is hard, like most things worth doing, but we have to try.
“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent…”
Ah. So there it is. He makes his point.

The audio is read by the author, and published by Random House Audio. It is a good book to listen to, if one has time. It may be faster to read, but I found myself slowing down over some of his cases. It is difficult for me to focus on some of the horrible lives and terrible choices people make. It makes me feel a little hopeless, too, that we could get to this place. I believe we must not unjustly imprison people, but I am not willing to go so far as to say every crime requires my absolution. I don’t think Stevenson is asking that. What he does say is
”We’re trying to stop the death penalty…We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. Were trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don't get the legal help they need. We’re trying to do help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors…”
I agree with all that. If there wouldn’t be another criminal after we’ve addressed all the things we have neglected to do, I wouldn’t be sorry.

The oral arguments for the case Evan Miller v Alabama that Stevenson argued and won before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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