A few years ago, I attend the Judicial Conference of the Fourth Circuit, where I heard Bryan Stevenson speak. The address was captivating. Stevenson spoke of representing the wrongly accused and the wrongly convicted. He told of advocating for juveniles who were incarcerated with adults and who were sexually abused as a result. He urged the audience to get a little closer to the criminal justice system, and to look a little more carefully at it. Now Stevenson has written a book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Among many other awards, it was named a best book of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time magazine. I thought it was good, but not great.
Stevenson. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit “that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.” He’s extraordinarily accomplished, having received a MacArthur “genius” grant; won relief in more than 100 capital cases; and argued several times before the Supreme Court, including in Miller v. Alabama, in which the Court forbade mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.
The book in brief. The book chronicles Stevenson’s professional life, beginning with his first meeting with a death row inmate as a 23-year-old law student doing an internship. It follows several cases in detail, including the case of Walter McMillian, an Alabama man condemned to death for a murder he didn’t commit. It also includes some reflections on race, class, and the criminal justice system. For example, Stevenson argues that “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” And he contends that “there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but that remain poorly understood,” including slavery, racial terrorism after Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
What’s good about the book. The book is inspiring. The injustices suffered by some of Stevenson’s clients are infuriating, and it’s easy to cheer for Stevenson as he works to seek redress. Lawyers who handle capital cases and who do indigent defense work will be energized by Stevenson’s commitment. The book also offers a unique perspective on some of the major issues and cases of our time, because Stevenson has been involved in so many of them.
What’s not great about the book. Stevenson’s speech was so good and so moving that my expectations for the book were probably unrealistic. But I didn’t find the book quite as outstanding, perhaps in part for three reasons:
- It’s impersonal. The book is a memoir, but it’s almost entirely about Stevenson’s work. It doesn’t offer much insight into Stevenson the man. Ted Conover, the accomplished author who reviewed Just Mercy for the New York Times, notes that the book “contains little that is intimate. Who has this man cared deeply about, apart from his mother and his clients among the dispossessed?”
- It preaches to the choir. The book will speak to those who already share Stevenson’s perspective, but those who have a more sanguine view of the criminal justice system may discount many of the stories as exceptional cases from decades ago in the deep South, and so not necessarily representative of the system as a whole.
- At times, it fails to hold defendants fully accountable for their crimes. Stevenson portrays many of his clients as victims of circumstance, including poverty, abuse, and in some cases, pressure from others. Part of a defense attorney’s job is to offer explanations for his clients’ conduct. But there’s a fine line between fairly contextualizing a defendant’s actions and unfairly minimizing a defendant’s culpability, and I thought Stevenson occasionally slipped over the line. Obviously, each reader will draw the line in a different place: Stevenson will be on solid ground for some and may be far out of bounds for others.
All in all, I liked the book. It wasn’t as good as the speech, but it was still good, and I recommend it. Readers interested in getting closer to the speech experience might enjoy Stevenson’s TED talk.