The New York Times

Sunday Book Review

‘Just Mercy,’ by Bryan Stevenson

The electric chair at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y., in 1953.Credit Associated Press


Unfairness in the Justice system is a major theme of our age. DNA analysis exposes false convictions, it seems, on a weekly basis. The predominance of racial minorities in jails and prisons suggests systemic bias. Sentencing guidelines born of the war on drugs look increasingly draconian. Studies cast doubt on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. Even the states that still kill people appear to have forgotten how; lately executions have been botched to horrific effect.

This news reaches citizens in articles and television spots about mistreated individuals. But “Just Mercy,” a memoir, aggregates and personalizes the struggle against injustice in the story of one activist lawyer.

Bryan Stevenson grew up poor in Delaware. His great-grandparents had been slaves in Virginia. His grandfather was murdered in a Philadelphia housing project when Stevenson was a teenager. Stevenson attended Eastern College (now Eastern University), a Christian institution outside Philadelphia, and then Harvard Law School. Afterward he began representing poor clients in the South, first in Georgia and then in Alabama, where he was a co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

“Just Mercy” focuses mainly on that work, and those clients. Its narrative backbone is the story of Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson began representing in the late 1980s when he was on death row for killing a young white woman in Monroe­ville, Ala., the hometown of Harper Lee. ­Monroeville has long promoted its connection to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is about a black man falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. As Stevenson writes, “Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root.” Walter McMillian had never heard of the book, and had scarcely been in trouble with the law. He had, however, been having an affair with a white woman, and Stevenson makes a persuasive case that it made McMillian, who cut timber for a living, vulnerable to prosecution.

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