The Arts

Looking for Mercy in an Age of Rage

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Alabama, and a professor at NYU Law School.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Alabama, and a professor at NYU Law School.

A Review of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson (Speigel & Grau, $16.00).

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy was first published in 2014, but it probably was his 2012 TED Talk “We need to talk about an injustice” that first brought him significant national attention (though I suppose winning a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 might also qualify as significant attention). Some three million views later, Stevenson has become a kind of moral center for exposing the travesty of the American incarceration system. And happily for Greensboro, he’ll be here on Feb. 21 as part of Guilford College’s Bryan Series.

Just Mercy itself is maddening–perhaps one of the most infuriating books in recent memory. The reader joins Stevenson in outrage and incredulity at the willful meanness and the wanton disregard for decency displayed by prosecutors, judges and jailers. Innocence is not really the prime determination of the future for many of the accused in this book–racism, expediency and careerism often trump expected norms of innocence and guilt in determining sentencing.

As a young lawyer, Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative in 1994 in Montgomery, Alabama, and much of the material in the book is taken from EJI cases. The central story in Just Mercy is the case of Walter McMillian. In 1989 McMillian was sentenced to die in the Alabama electric chair and despite his obvious innocence he spends six years in prison before Stevenson helps to get him released. Honest mistakes happen, of course (I think of Jennifer Thompson’s and Ronald Cotton’s story in Picking Cotton, where Thompson misidentifies Cotton as her rapist then spends years trying to correct her mistake and now works tirelessly to prevent witness error), but this case is filled with blatant callousness about human life and justice.

But Stevenson’s work isn’t simply about freeing the innocent. He tackles a much larger societal issue: mercy. To his credit, Stevenson describes the crimes of several of his clients in detail, and sometimes these crimes resulted in serious harm or death. Still Stevenson demands we look at the person and his life circumstances, but more importantly he demands we look at ourselves. Do we really want to sentence 16-year-old boys to die in adult prison? Do we really want to kill the mentally ill? What does it do to our society to allow these merciless sentences to continue?


I suppose Just Mercy suggests that the American criminal justice system has lost its ability to care at the level required for a civil society. But there’s plenty of evidence that the present-day extremism of American incarceration rates is rooted in the history of American racism. However cruel Stevenson finds our current situation, he also knows that this cruelty has long been part of the black experience in this country.

The victories Stevenson and the EJI have had are often countered with botched executions, excruciating solitary confinement and absurd false convictions. One of the marvels of the book is Stevenson’s reserve of energy and optimism. He expresses admiration for Czech leader Vaclav Havel and his belief that what the people needed in the struggle for independence was hope:

“Not that pie in the sky, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes us strong.”

Despite the brutality on display in Just Mercy, Stevenson’s conviction and call to action make this an inspiring book. He includes a note at the book’s end about how to help the more than two million incarcerated people in the United States (check out the Equal Justice Initiative website at In preparation for Stevenson’s visit to the Triad, WFDD and Scuppernong Books, in conjunction with the Bryan Series, will hold two book club sessions on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 2:00 and 4:00 pm. Also, on Feb. 7 Saundra Westervelt (author of Life After the Death Penalty) will lead a discussion on Just Mercy at 7:00 pm at Scuppernong.

Bryan Stevenson’s Bryan Series appearance is on February 21 at 7:30 pm at the Greensboro Coliseum.