“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It is justice.” –Bryan Stevenson
It’s been a long time since a book has broken me and left me humbled to the point of tears, but attorney Bryan Stevenson’s first-hand critical look at the justice system in the South and beyond did just that. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a memoir of sorts describing Bryan’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and its efforts to serve those who cannot afford legal representation, those who have been victimized by the justice system, and those who have been condemned to death row and life in prison.
The narrative backbone of the book is the story of Walter McMillan, a black man in Alabama who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman in a small town. Walter’s conviction was supported by very little evidence. What evidence did exist, was flimsy at best. The star witness of the prosecution was a man known for wild tales that consistently contradicted one another and who testified only to get himself better treatment in his own case. Walter’s experience with the justice system was defined by interactions with a racist sheriff, suspicion by a fearful society looking to cast blame on someone, lack of consideration by an all white jury, and indifference from a judge named Robert E. Lee Key, who overturned the jury’s decision of life in prison and replaced it with the death penalty. The reader follows Bryan in his almost sisyphean task of getting Walter off of death row within a system that either refuses to care about or openly defends injustice towards poor persons of color.
This review does not give me enough time or space to discuss every heart breaking moment or every joyous victory in Bryan’s and Walter’s continuing journey, but the one lesson that everyone should know about this book comes from a passage in a chapter entitled “Broken”:
“But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.”
While the book itself provides obvious interest to attorneys who want to see another attorney’s efforts in working for his client, I think the above quote is the actual reason attorneys need to read this book. We all enter this profession wanting to do good and wanting to make the world a little better through our work. But how many of us are willing to admit our own brokenness? Attorneys are often looked at as having to be super heroes: smart, courageous, and above all else, inscrutable and veiled behind the heavy curtain of the “Law”. But that level of performance-based validation only serves to isolate us from those who need our help the most. It’s a vicious cycle that results in a broken system.
Bryan’s relationship with Walter cuts through all of that. It’s a relationship that has only one message: No matter how different our lives look, all persons deserve our love and our willingness to ensure that they have the same justice and mercy that have been given to us throughout our own broken journeys.
Just Mercy has taught me that in every interaction I have with a client, whether it be helping them start a new business or begin a major transaction, I should always stop and ask how is my client being treated by the systems in power and how can I, a fellow broken individual in a position to help, fight for them to have the justice and mercy that they deserve and that I have been given?