just mercy book coverReviewed by Sarah McCubbin

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we often assume that there is liberty and justice for all. In a place where a civil war was fought to achieve freedom and civil rights were fought over for equality, it’s easy to forget that intentions do not necessarily equal reality.

Initially, when Bryan Stevenson decided to pursue law school, he struggled to find his purpose. But after his internship with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee, he found his calling in the legal profession. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson shares the compelling stories of people sentenced to death row and his work on their behalf. What were their names? How did they get there? What were their crimes? Was justice truly done? These are the questions he asks as he spins a true story as riveting as the best of legal fiction. The law by its nature is a very black and white entity. Break the law…pay the price. In a perfect world, that kind of logic makes sense. But when the law intersects with the broken lives of people suffering from abuse, neglect, mental illness, poverty and injustice, we should question whether following the letter of the law equals true justice. Additionally, he suggests that those who lack resources are less likely to be able to defend themselves when they are charged with crimes. This is particularly distressing in death penalty cases, as a person that is poorly represented may indeed die for a crime they did not commit. As Stevenson’s mentor said, “capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’”

While there are many distressing stories told in Just Mercy, it focuses mainly on that of Walter McMillian, a young black man sent to death row following the murder of a young white woman. When the local authorities in this Alabama community ran out suspects and faced the scrutiny of the anxious public, they faced considerable pressure to make an arrest. When someone pointed the finger at McMillian, the police maliciously charged and imprisoned him despite vast amounts of evidence that he was innocent. Without the resources to mount a solid defense, Walter McMillian faced a short trial and a death penalty sentence. Stevenson spent years working to free McMillian in a system prejudiced against the poor and people of color.

Intermixed with Walter’s story are so many others that are equally heart wrenching. He writes of children as young as 14 years old being sentenced to the electric chair and women charged with murder after their babies are stillborn. There are others who are terribly abused and neglected who make foolish choices because of the voices in their heads. Whether guilty or not, Stevenson’s approach challenges each of us to consider whether the law should be used impartially. After reading this book, I feel challenged to view the lives of others and their choices, poor as they may be, with more empathy. I highly recommend this book if you enjoy insight into the human condition and even more so if your life’s work intersects with causes related to the law or justice.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Sarah McCubbin is a homeschooling and foster mom in NE Ohio where she resides with her husband and 7 children. In addition to reading great books, she enjoys gardening, traveling and blogging at Living Unboxed.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.