I don’t read a lot of books about law, fiction or nonfiction. I tried The Firm and it just wasn’t my cup of tea. When my book club picked Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, I wasn’t sure what to expect. We had paired this book with our discussion of Between the World and Me. The one element of Just Mercy that really piqued my interest is that one of the central cases that Stevenson takes on is in the town where Harper Lee lives and is the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Bryan Stevenson studied law at Harvard and wanted to use the law to better the world around. He worked with a non-profit law firm that worked in the South that provided legal aid to prisoners on death row. After graduating, Stevenson worked with the firm full time. The central office was in Atlanta, but Stevenson started working in Alabama and eventually opened up an office there so he could be closer to the prisoners he worked with.
As his experience unfolds, I was shocked to realize how important good representation is when you’ve been accused of a crime. So many of Stevenson’s clients were on death row because their public defenders didn’t do their job, or didn’t know how to properly defend their clients. It’s scary to think that your life could be lost because your lawyer doesn’t file the right paperwork.
Another disturbing statistic is that the vast majority of those on death row are Black men even though they are a minority in Alabama. It’s disturbing to know that a system that should protect citizens, ends up unfairly prosecuting one group. Stevenson gives background stories on several of his clients and it’s horrifying and enraging to know that the justice system, from local police to the Alabama Supreme Court, demonstrated racial bias.
Stevenson weaves the details about the injustices that happen more often than I knew in the U. S. Justice system into a narrative that is engrossing and eye opening. It’s hard to miss the irony that the very town that “To Kill a Mockingbird” wrongfully convicted a modern Tom Robinson, with an all White jury. It’s so absurd it’s hard to believe. I highly recommend this read.