Book Review | May 2021
"I feel like they done put me on death row, too. What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm's way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain't do and send you to death row?"
This quote from Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption aptly and appropriately summarizes the frustration and despair of the many affected by wrongful imprisonment and incarceration in the United States.
I first learned about Bryan Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) when I watched the Netflix documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay. I immediately wanted to dive deeper into Bryan's story and how he started down his path to fight for equal justice for the men, women and children wrongly accused or who have received harsh sentences unfitting the level of the crime.
What was most impactful for me were the heartbreaking stories of children and teenagers sentenced to life in prison without parole or awaiting execution on death row. In many cases the horrific backgrounds of abuse and trauma endured or mental disorders are completely ignored when reviewing the facts or in an effort to understand the complexity of the situations they found themselves in. Bryan paints a picture of these individuals that cannot be forgotten. How can a person be judged, punished and sentenced for the actions and decisions made as a child that impacts the rest of their life?
Just Mercy highlights the racial inequities in the justice and legal system and sheds light on the often harsher penalties received by Black and brown people. It's a shocking look at the blatant disregard for the facts of truth, circumstance and innocence. While reading this book there were certainly moments of hopelessness about a case or argument lost, however knowing that there are people like Bryan Stevenson and others at organizations like EJI fighting for the rights of those that don't have the resources available does provide some hope and certainly inspiration.
This is a wonderful book for those looking to educate themselves about the history of mass incarceration, the prison system, and the personalized stories of the men, women and children affected by racial injustice, racism and prejudice. This includes the families, friends and communities torn apart by the trials and outcomes often having lifelong effects of all involved. Through this book, I was able to gain a better understanding of the time, effort, and persistence the work of Bryan Stevenson, EJI and other social justice warriors takes to change the fixed minds of those in power to prove innocence or reduce sentencing.
To have the names and stories behind the many examples of the punishment not fitting the crime makes it impossible to not want to find a way to support change and right wrongs. Stories are amazingly powerful and Bryan is a masterful storyteller.