This morning I finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. By the time I read the last page, I had cried (more than once), laughed, cursed, and celebrated.
Bryan helped to found EJI in Montgomery, Alabama–Equal Justice Initiative. In his book, he details the stories of those wrongly accused and/or unjustly incarcerated by a corrupt group of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges. While most of his book focuses on the South, Alabama in particular, he also tells of similar injustices throughout our country. We are plagued by a system that unfairly targets the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Here is the website: http://bryanstevenson.com/the-book/
As I read account after account, I thought of Charles Dickens and the story of Oliver Twist. Oliver’s only crime was that he was a poor orphan. For this he was punished. Of course, not every person convicted of a crime has been wrongly accused. Not every person who claims to be innocent are truly innocent. But when I read about a prisoner named Joe who was convicted of a crime HE DID NOT COMMIT at age 13 and sentenced to serve out his time in an adult prison, my heart broke. Joe’s story must be anomaly, I told myself. Surely the law works equally for everyone. I had not realized how naive I was until I read this book.
Don’t judge me too harshly. It is much easier to believe what we are told than to constantly question it. But question it we must. After 18 years for this crime he did not commit, Joe had developed severe health problems. His life was literally destroyed. And yet, when Bryan met him, he managed to smile and mustered his hope for a good ending to his nightmarish life.
Bryan also tells of a man in Monroeville, Alabama who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a young woman based entirely on LIES by shady witnesses. The judge, the prosecutor, and the sheriff in this case were not only negligent but, as far as I can tell, pure evil. The conspired together for years to convict Walter simply because it was convenient. Motivated by racism and hatred, they put a decent man on death row for over 6 years. If it had not been for Bryan’s intervention, he would have been electrocuted. Alabama, as Bryan points out, had at that time one of the highest rates of carrying out the death penalty in the United States.
Monroeville is quite the famous place, known for being the birthplace of Harper Lee and the setting for To Kill A Mockingbird. The tragic irony of this situation was not lost on Bryan and his colleagues, but unfortunately was completely lost on those involved in Walter’s case. It made me literally ill to read of this this man’s ordeal. Walter died from complications due to dementia in 2013, but at least he died a free man.
Bryan Stevenson’s book was a revelation to me. As I read these stories about the suffering and incredible bravery of those who had been so horribly mistreated I could hardly stand it. WE MUST CHANGE things in this country. WE CANNOT allow the status quo to continue. I write this blog fully aware of the fact that I may seem like a complete fool to some and a latecomer to the party to others. So be it. This book has lit a fire under me. This is not the last time I will address this topic. My students in first year composition will be reading this book in Winter quarter.
I am actively looking for ways to contribute to the alleviation of this outrageous problem. Write to me if you are interested in helping. As Bryan says, we have work to do.