Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Just Mercy

Bryan Stevenson worked to help defend poor prisoners in the the south. He had to ration his time and often focus on those with the most imminent needs - often prisoners on death row. His experience has made him strongly against the death penalty for anybody. He stresses the need for mercy and help for prisoners. The poor, minorities and mentally ill are significantly over-represented in the prison population. In the south, prisons and the death penalty were often used to help keep the black population down. (The death penalty could be seen as a legitimization of "lynchings".) The actual execution of inmates is not an easy process and it negatively impacts those that have to carry it out. (He finds it ironic that people are willing to provide plenty of help and service for inmates right before they are killed. What if this service was provided earlier in their lives instead?)
The author focuses on some of his most sympathetic clients. The primary story is about a black man (Walter McMillan) that was wrongfully convicted of murder in the hometown of To Kill A Mockingbird. A young woman was murdered in the town and the sheriff was desperately trying to find the culprit. A good-for-nothing made up testimony implicating McMillan. He was convicted despite holes in the testimony and a powerful alibi. (Dozens of people were with him far away from the murder scene at the time of the crime.) The judge overrode the jury to sentence him to death. It took numerous appeals and another investigation before he was finally free. It seems the only reason he was even a suspect was because he had a relationship with a younger white woman.
There is also the story of the woman who was sentenced for giving birth to a stillborn child. She had not sought medical care, and had buried the baby on their property. Nosy neighbors were suspicious and had the baby dug up and some (since discredited) doctors declared the baby had been alive.
Other clients mentioned had admitted to committing a crime, yet received a punishment that far outweighed the crime. Many of these were barely teenagers, yet were tried as adults and received death or life without parole sentences. Others were mentally ill. Many grew up in broken homes. Most were poor and black. In one story he mentions the case of a very "mean", white guard. He gave Stevenson a tough time when he visited. One day he escorted one of his clients to a court hearing. There they described the rough childhood and experience the client had in abusive foster care. The next time Stevenson saw him, he was totally different and very kind. (He had even stopped by to get the client a chocolate milkshake.) It turns out, he too had suffered in the foster care system. He could empathize with the inmate and what he had gone through.
Empathy is the theme of the book. Most of the people described had done something wrong. They deserved to have some punishment. However, they also deserve empathy. Often their biggest crime is being poor. Had they had money, they could have had better representation and would likely have received lessor sentences. Society is willing to spend billions of dollars incarcerating these people, rather than spend time and money helping them be productive members of society.

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