Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Just Mercy - a review

   A friend, a labor union president, recommended the book, Just Mercy.  He said, “It offered me a new perspective that I never imagined.”  The book is written by Bryan Stevenson, a defense attorney who specializes in defending death row prisoners and others with patently unjust sentences.

  The setting for the book is Monroe County, Alabama, the home of Walter McMillian, an innocent man, convicted of murder.    The story tells of his redemption, but is interspersed with other capital cases that violate a basic understanding of justice, yet are perpetuated by ‘the government of the people.’ Ultimately the book explores the themes of justice and mercy.

  In the first chapter Stevenson points out parallels of the Walter McMillian story to the famous book and movie, To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.  Walter’s story takes place in the racist south, Monroe County, Alabama (named Maycomb in Mocking Bird); it’s about a Black man falsely convicted of murder, but conscientiously defended by a local lawyer Atticus Finch.  In the Mocking Bird, however, the innocent man, Tom Robinson, is convicted and is killed trying to escape prison.  After years of imprisonment Walter McMillian was exonerated through the legal efforts of Bryan Stevenson.

   Stevenson writes:

This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.  It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. [1]

He goes on to note that this is a national psychological problem. Let’s call it a collective sickness. Stevenson is asking: how can we treat fellow human beings in this way?

   Just Mercy also relates to Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman.  To Kill a Mocking Bird was published in 1960, but the recently published Watchman was written before Mocking Bird.

   Watchman takes place in the 50’s and predicts the turbulence ahead for the South and the work of Bryan Stevenson.  In Watchman, Scout – Jean Louise, challenges her father Atticus, who is a just man in the southern U.S. culture.  She notes that Atticus’s concept of justice is an abstract notion. “You love justice, all right, abstract justice written down item by item on a brief.” [2]

     Stevenson writes:

Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human.[3]

   How do we move forward after reading Just Mercy The story of Stevenson’s experience with the legal system and with Walter McMillian leads the reader of his work, to agree with him that mercy and compassion are requisites to true justice. To acquire the potential for mercy requires getting in touch with both the prison system and the people it treats unjustly. Political action should follow.  

“Mercy is where justice is meant to terminate.”[4]

Artwork from a young immigrant detained in a Wisconsin prison. 

Rules there do not allow colored pens, pencils, crayons.  
He created color by rubbing it from magazines and using alcohol extracted from his deoderant.

[1] Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, Spiegel & Grau, New York, p. 14.
[2] Harper Lee, Go Set Watchman. Harper Lee, New York, p. 248.
[3] Stevenson, Ibid.
[4] Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, “Catholic Herald,” May 19, 2016.

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