As some of you know, I’ve spent some time teaching in prison, so I hope you’ll beleive me when I say the importance of this book can’t be overstated. The information here probably won’t come as a surprise to African-American readers, but should be required reading for everyone else. It will (or should) change the way you view just about everything.
From the back of the book: “Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillan, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.”
Apart from the cases documented in this book, which are heartbreaking and fury-inducing, the example Bryan Stevenson provides us is invaluable. We need heroes like this — dedicated, brilliant, brave, relentless, compassionate, clear-eyed, open-hearted, humble and, yes, hopeful.
There are passages toward the end of the work that moved me to tears. This is one of them:
“For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of…dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war…people broken by poverty…people broken by disability. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice…you can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. … But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight– only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
Stevenson meets an old woman who visits the courtroom every day. Her grandson was murdered by other teenagers and she had, at the end of the trial convicting those boys and sending them to prison for life, been comforted by a stranger. And so, she in turn comes now to comfort others — mindful only of their need for comfort, not caring if they are the ones harmed, or the ones who have done harm. She says, “I decided I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.” And then relates the biblical parable of the woman accused of adultery who was brought to Jesus. This is moment when Christ says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” when he saves her from her accusers, forgives her and urges her to sin no more. The old woman suggests that Stevenson is a stonecatcher, too.
I think she’s right. I think we should all begin catching stones, and we can learn how by reading this book.