Just Mercy wasn’t even on my radar. A book about death row? I didn’t really have a strong opinion either way; I assumed people smarter than I am had all that figured out (spoiler alert: I was wrong). I’m grateful for friends who challenge me to read books that make me uncomfortable, because it is through that I learn and grow.
My only experience with death row, or even thinking about it, is all tied to the Oklahoma City bombing. I was in early elementary school and obviously wasn’t exposed to the gruesome details, but I recall the moment of silence we had at school for those who had died. The students were dutifully silent with no whispers or jokes, but the room itself was not silent. The muffled crying of the teachers filled the silence, even as we didn’t truly understand what had occurred. Fast forward after the capture, trial, and conviction of Timothy McVeigh. He was sentenced to death row. I didn’t think much about him or the tragedy except on the annual anniversary, but once we moved to Indiana years later even that reminder became muted, replaced with other tragedies.
Then, ironically, they moved him to a prison in Indiana and I found myself faced with the reminder once again. But now I was a young adult, and angry that this evil man had decided to kill innocent people, including children. Hate filled my heart and I thought he deserved to die.
Just Mercy changed all of that. It made me realize that by wishing death upon murderers, we only fill our own hearts with hate. We drink the same poison and it keeps the cycle of hurting going. Additionally, the number of innocent people on death row is astonishing. And even if they are guilty, who are we to decide they should die too? It’s a hard question to pose, but we taint our own hearts by willingly killing others, even those who have killed. We are all human, and dehumanizing people because of the crime they committed is wrong as well.
This book exposed me to the pervasive injustice that permeates our justice system. I was completely ignorant of the number of women, children, and minorities unfairly and improperly prosecuted. One woman was sentenced to ten years for writing three bad checks (two of which were to Toys’R’Us to buy Christmas presents for her children). Ten years in prison for one bad decision (or potential mistake- who hasn’t miscalculated their checkbook and overdrafted their account once in their lives?!). But because of where she was, because of poverty, because of public defenders who aren’t always invested in the people they represent, cases like these get severe punishments.
We have a broken system that punishes the poor, disabled, the oppressed. This book opened my eyes to the horrible conditions that exist, and the wonderful people who devote their lives to trying to change it. The inherent bias, and the struggle to advocate for racial equality in front of a judge that once argued against desegregation as governor, it all seems insurmountable.
At the end of this book, you don’t feel like even the cases with positive outcomes are wins. Ultimately, losing years of an innocent person’s life to living behind bars can never equate to that euphoria that is winning. But getting laws passed to prevent children from serving time in adult prisons, or life without parole for nonviolent offenses, or to protect the mentally disabled from execution, these are wins. While they create more work for an overwrought system, they are the embodiment of hope.
That is what this book leaves you with- a whisper of hope and the strength to keep catching the stones that others throw.
One of my favorite lines from this book, and I’m paraphrasing, is that the worst thing you’ve ever done shouldn’t define you. It is not enough to not throw stones (regarding the ‘he who is without sin should cast the first stone’ parable); rather, we have to be willing to catch the stones thrown by others.
This book both broke and restored my faith in humanity simultaneously. It taught me hard truths about our justice system that I needed to know. We absolutely need widespread reform to stop the racial bias that exists. I’ve joked that after reading this, I’ll never live in Alabama, and after listening to season 3 of the podcast Serial I’ll never live in Cleveland. But we can’t delude ourselves into thinking these same problems aren’t in every town and county in this country. This book cites several cases in states other than Alabama where equally egregious things are happening.
This book changed my perspective and opened my eyes to a world I had never seen. I’m grateful that Bryan Stevenson is such a strong fighter, and that he has the gift of eloquence and storytelling to share these stories and teach those of us privileged to be in ignorance of this system.