Reading the reviews of Bryan Stevenson’s critically acclaimed inaugural masterpiece “Just Mercy” will leave you spellbound and intrigued. But to dive into it’s pages, you will bear the burden of a brutal and disturbing truth. That the American justice system, as many marginalized and under resourced Americans know far too well, is so deeply flawed, its general sense of promise is undermined.
As someone who grew up at the height of America’s “Crack Epidemic” in the 1980s and 90s, I am keenly familiar with its demons. Being both black, under resourced, and deeply under educated by a public education system seeking serve the interests of adults and not its students, I saw first hand the ways in which the criminal justice became the solution for people like me. If you were black you were a victim of the criminal justice system. Growing up in the inner city, even if I was lost, if I were running from a gang, if I were raped or near the brink of death, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would call the police to render any form of justice. What I have known intuitively almost without a second guess is that justice was nothing I’d ever seen and surely I’d never witness from this system.
Bryan’s book takes on a very emotional and sensational journey of the gross miscarriages of justice in one of the poorest states in America. Centered primarily in Alabama is the story of Walter McMillian, a man who’s story made me cry at every passage. Getting through subway rides was tough. Attempting to have a sound and peaceful lunch overwhelmed me. I worried about Walter McMillian’s fate with every passage. He was, as many of the victims of the criminal justice system in Bryan’s book, a black man of the rural south. The stories, the real lived experiences of people, primarily took place in the 80s and 90s. Racial tension, stereotypes, and classism still controlled the way local politicians viewed citizens, innocence and criminality.
What I learned with every page was that the impossible cruelty of the penal justice system is being perpetrated on the poor everyday. That 14 year olds are sitting for a decade in solitary confinement without contact from the outside. That mentally ill women are being raped and giving birth to the children of the guards who were sent to protect them at enormous rates. That these guards are being protected by unions and powerful interests and remain in those prisons or circled around to rape, brutalize and terrorize other women (and men). I learned than 15 and 16 year olds (not just the ones in my own family) are being sentenced to die for crimes they committed when their minds were legally incapable of understanding their crimes. I learned that men and women are dying via an electric chair without having legal counsel with no DNA evidence. I learned that small town sheriffs, prosecutors, and police officers conspire to protect their own integrity while destroying the lives of under resourced everyday. I learned that behind every criminal is a system of under education, foster care, neglect, abuse and/or a failure of justice.
What I learned from Bryan Stevenson has my soul on fire. I am forever changed. I want everyone to know Marsha Colbey. I want everyone to feel the stain of George Stinney’s execution on their hearts and minds. I want people to shift in their seats and rethink their lives when they encounter the disturbing realties associated with the conviction and imprisonment of Antonio Nunez. I want everyone in the world to know that Ian Manuel spent 18 consecutive years in solitary confinement. I want people to say Trina Garnett’s name as frequently as they say any other victims.
The stories of these victims of justice need to be told.
I am grateful to Bryan for telling them.