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‘Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption’

by Bryan Stevenson

Speigel & Grau, 336, $28

In 1985, Bryan Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School and moved to Alabama to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, a law practice dedicated to representing the poorest and most marginalized people in the country: those suffering from excessive or unfair sentences, or facing the death penalty. He had no shortage of clients.

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One of his first cases involved Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville, Ala., convicted and sentenced to death for a notorious murder that he insisted he didn’t commit. The evidence was remarkably thin but the hostility toward McMillian was palpable. As the execution date approached, Stevenson and his legal team worked furiously to save McMillian before time ran out, frustrated that the Monroeville legal community seemed more enthralled by its local hometown author (Harper Lee) and her towering novel (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), than obvious racial injustice occurring in its own courthouse. It’s a terrific novel, Stevenson notes, but most readers fail to remember that Atticus Finch, the virtuous lawyer in the novel, failed to save his client from the death penalty. Unlike Finch, Stevenson and his team were able to save McMillian, in a dramatic victory earned through long years of work.

The bomb threats started not long after Stevenson’s appearance in the case.

Stevenson, a McArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, recounts heartbreaking stories from over two decades of representing the most hopeless convicts, sentenced either to death or to life without the possibility of parole. His writing is dramatic, arresting, and filled with telling detail. It would be easy to dismiss the effort as just another self-righteous denunciation of the American criminal justice system, but this book is far more valuable and compelling than that. It ought to be required reading in law school. Not for how the system should work, but for how the system often does work. And it is a horrifying sight.

One of Stevenson’s areas of focus was on children convicted in a brutal criminal justice system. The United States, when Stevenson began, was the only country in the world where children at age 13 could be sentenced to life in prison and placed in an adult prison population. One of Stevenson’s clients, Ian Manuel, was charged at age 13 with attempted homicide and sentenced to life in prison. He had been in solitary confinement for 18 years, living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet. Stevenson challenged that law and ultimately won a ruling from the Supreme Court overturning life sentences for children 17 or younger as unconstitutional.

Stevenson, himself a relatively young black lawyer, confronted obvious hostility to his work and his presence. At one point, returning from his office late at night, he paused in his car outside his own apartment listening to the end of a song on the radio. He quickly found himself surrounded by police and only after a long, patient discussion was he released.

Stevenson tackled cases involving the mentally ill, abused spouses, and the homeless. In each chapter, he introduces the reader to heart rending cases of seemingly clear injustice and an unforgiving criminal justice system. The United States today has the highest incarceration rates in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 in the early 1970s to over 2.3 million today. Spending on jails and prisons has increased from $6.9 billion in the 1980s to nearly $80 billion today.

Stevenson’s contributions to social justice have been remarkable. But his efforts, on top of his continuing legal practice, to provide this inside glimpse of the criminal justice system are priceless.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.