Thursday, March 8, 2018

Tough Listen: "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson

Tough Listen: Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption by Bryan Stevenson, 2014, download from Wisconsin Digital Library.

This was chosen as a virtual book club title by my alma mater. I would not likely have tried this book without except for the promos I read from my school.

Short Version: Dude goes to law school, spends a summer helping a defense lawyer, joins a nonprofit defense firm, starts a nonprofit death row legal firm, does a crap ton of important and precedent setting work for the innocent and unfairly tried and unjustly imprisoned, argues several times in front of U.S. Supreme Court, and lets us know all the ways that poor people and black people are consistently screwed over.

Longer Version: Stevenson went to Harvard law school and wanted to do important work. In class he found out that a lot of lawyer work is boring, uneventful and not having any social impact. One summer he helped out the Southern Center for Human Rights and knew what he wanted to do. After graduation Stevenson went to Atlanta and after a few years started a nonprofit practice in Alabama.

Stevenson's practice has focused mainly on death row cases and convicts with life sentences. Stevenson returns to the case of Walter McMillian throughout the book to illustrate his points. McMillian was a independent logger in the 1980s when a former white girlfriend of his took up with a dirtbag. The dirtbag and ex-girlfriend got busted so something or other and Dirtbag said, "Hey, you know that murder case you still haven't solved and everyone is pissed off about? Well, I know who did it and I want out of jail."  Sure enough the police take the bait.

The Police start looking into McMillian and even though he has a strong alibi with the testimony of tens of people the cops overlook facts, do a crap investigation, and railroad the man into a murder conviction.

McMillian's story is compelling and only one of the many similar cases taken on by Stevenson. There are several cases where indigent defendents are saddled with idiots for lawyers. (Stevenson lists several lawyers who were later disbarred.) Even when a decent or earnest lawyer is assigned a case there is no money available to pay the attorney's fees. If you want a expert witness you'll have to get by with only $500. Sometimes two lawyers who are supposed to work together argue about the total $1500 available and do jack shit for the client.

McMillian details all the many ways people get screwed over in death penalty cases. He also covers the injustice of life sentences - he terms those judgments as "death in prison" - given to juveniles who were in their early teens at the time of the crime.

Anyhoo. The book can be a depressing and angering listen/read. I was grateful for Stevenson committing his career for such a low paying gig. His work is incredibly admirable and a not-so-visible continuation of the civil rights struggle. You'll hear plenty of stories of people screwed over by society and the law but you'll also hear about Stevenson and others who work to make things better.

1. Stevenson is advocating for his clients and his work to change the legal system. His presentations of his clients usually show them as good people stuck in bad situations are mistreated by the law. How much detail is he skipping over to make that argument? He's a skilled lawyer and knows how to argue for his clients. Is he whitewashing anything?
2. I had a dream the other night where a former Library Page was around and I discovered we had just read a lot of the same books. She even had a print copy of Just Mercy with her.I didn't actually want to talk to her about the books though.

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