Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson
First sentence: “I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man.”
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Content: It’s intense, and there are some graphic elements, as well as swearing. It’s not for the tender-hearted (I had to put it down several times and read other books because I couldn’t handle the nature of the story). It’s in the adult non-fiction sections of the bookstore.

This one has been on my radar for a while as one I’d need to get around to reading. But what really prompted me to pick it up was listening to Serial. The two don’t really have a ton in common, but there are similarities. Both deal with minorities being imprisoned, mostly unjustly. Both are difficult, at times, to listen to/read. Both are important.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer from Harvard in the mid-80s when he went to Atlanta to do an internship there. He got involved with a death-penalty case in Alabama, where he determined that the man was accused falsely. Stevenson became involved in the case to the point where he started the Equal Justice Initiative, a group that advocates for people on death row, as well as for children and for those with mental disabilities who have been imprisoned for life.

I took away two things from this book: First, our justice system may work “as well as it can”, but that usually means “for those who can afford it.” If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear after reading this: our system is broke. It favors those who are white, those who are healthy, and those who are well off. Especially in the South. It saddened and depressed me that this isn’t history. This is happening in my lifetime, not in some distant past.

The second thing is that Stevenson is an incredibly hopeful individual. He’s practical, yes. But he’s also hopeful, and Christian, and just Good to do this work for people society — people like me — have written off. It makes me want to go out and give everyone I meet a second, or third, chance. Yes, there are people out there who are beyond hope, but I think, especially after reading this, that there aren’t that many people who are completely unredeemable.

It was a tough book, emotionally, for me to read (it didn’t help that I went and saw Selma while reading this as well). I cried a lot. My heart broke. And I had to think about the way I treat and judge people.

I am grateful that there are people like Stevenson out there doing this work. And I’m glad he wrote this book if only to make people like me more aware.

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