I don’t normally go for non-fiction, but this title grabbed my attention as I was searching for something else on Overdrive (library’s answer to online books). I read it just a few days.
Bryan Stevenson is a black lawyer, working in Alabama, and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit-making initiative supporting prisoners, largely those on Death Row. The book covers the period from the 1980s onwards, the first couple of decades seeing an escalation in executions following the lifting of the unofficial moratorium on executions in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. In the initial stages Stevenson was not very successful, but, as time went on, he and his organisation grow in confidence and stature, and the American establishment’s enthusiasm for the death penalty waned.
If any of us needed convincing, Stevenson makes a powerful case against capital punishment generally, and in the USA in particular:
- Miscarriages of justice. Ergo, wrong people convicted. In the stories Stevenson writes up, this happens a lot. Walter McMillan’s was a case Stevenson pursued vigorously, despite obstacles put in his way, by the judiciary, the police and politicians. In McMillan, he sensed the quiet certainty in the tone of someone who is innocent. EJI secured McMillan’s release after a long legal battle, although, sadly, the poor man was so traumatised by being on Death Row that he died prematurely through dementia a few years later.
- Law is expensive. Therefore poorer people, especially people of colour, are badly represented or not represented. In a number of cases, the legal advice initially offered to defendants was so bad that Stevenson was able to ask for legal review.
- Racial prejudice. Death Row is overwhelmingly populated by black people. At the beginning of the time about which Stevenson was writing, courts and juries would always find in favour of the white party and inter-racial sex was viewed as an act so vile and disgusting that any defendant practising it would automatically be found guilty of all other charges. And if he wasn’t already indicted, a crime would be found and pinned upon him. A lot of what Stevenson reported arose out of fear and hysteria. Alabama boasted of being ‘To Kill a Mockingbird Country’, yet replicated all the racial prejudice Harper Lee excoriated.
- No appreciation of domestic abuse. Women and sons of abused mothers were found guilty of killing family members and stepfathers, but no account taken of their circumstances or the abuse that had occurred beforehand.
- Children and young teenagers were being tried under the adult legal system and held in adult jails, where they were liable to be raped.
- Prisoners who were mentally ill, or had learning difficulties, were tried and convicted, with no account taken of their mental state, or understanding.
- Conditions on Death Row were inhumane, with prisoners being kept in solitary confinement or in cages, and goaded and provoked by prison staff.
- There is no humane method for judicial killing. The electric chair is inefficient, taking several minutes to kill someone by burning. Apparently, the smell of singed flesh is overpowering. As doctors are barred from attending executions by their Hippocratic Oath, execution is carried out by prison officers who frequently bungle the job. The drugs needed for lethal injections are prohibited from sale in the United States and have to be acquired illegally abroad.
Stevenson also wrote about the toll his work had upon him, how he felt when he was unable to prevent a client going to the electric chair and how at one point he nearly gave up. He told us about his working class upbringing and the solid Christian values instilled into him by his mother, and his grandmother whose own grandparents had been slaves.
However, the end of the book was upbeat, with the number of executions dwindling and state after state stopping using the death penalty. It was a grim read, and gory in places, but, when it’s all true and happening in our own life time, the reader has to cope with it. In actual fact, the narrative was readable throughout, balancing failures in one chapter with a more hopeful strain in the next. I finished the book, full of admiration for Stevenson’s energetic prosecution of justice and his gathering success. One of his most poignant anecdotes is about how a judge entered an empty court room just before the start of a hearing to find a black man sitting in there by himself. The judge tries to hustle him out, telling that he must wait for his counsel. ‘I am the counsel,” Stevenson answered him.
Just Mercy is available from the author’s website.