All the Broken People

By Priyanka KumarNovember 23, 2014

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

SOME ARE BROKEN by the system, some were born into broken homes — they are prisoners on death row, those who were incarcerated for life as juveniles, and poor women who were prosecuted for supposedly botching up their pregnancies. Bryan Stevenson wants more justice, more mercy, and more hope for all of them. The prisoners fortunate enough to be represented by him couldn’t have a better champion. Stevenson’s work is urgent and life-giving, and his book, Just Mercy, is an eye-opener. More clarity about Stevenson’s life and his motivations — beyond the obvious ones — would have served the story, but that’s only because the work he does is Herculean, and it can be useful to know what makes such a person tick.

In 1989, Stevenson, a young lawyer, a few years out of Harvard Law School, opened a nonprofit law center, which would later be called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), in Montgomery, Alabama. In the beginning, he was faced with snowballing execution dates, and he wasn’t able to retain even the one other lawyer he’d hired. His clients’ needs were, literally, life and death, but he was stretched as thin as a lawyer can be and often couldn’t extend the sort of aid he would’ve liked to.

Condemned prisoners on Alabama’s death row unit are housed in windowless concrete buildings that are notoriously hot and uncomfortable. Each death row inmate was placed in a five-by-eight-foot cell with a metal door, a commode, and a steel bunk. The temperatures in August consistently reached over 100 degrees for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Incarcerated men would trap rats, poisonous spiders, and snakes they found inside the prison to pass the time and to keep safe.

The need for Stevenson’s services was so great, and his clients so desperate, there was almost no time to grieve those who were unjustly executed. The anxieties of the prisoners on death row, the ethical questions involved, and the frequent miscarriages of justice — these are just some of the many considerations that make it clear to any thoughtful reader why an execution is an inhumane act. When yet another client, Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam veteran, was denied a stay of execution, Stevenson could only sit in the “death chamber” and watch as prison officials “pumped themselves up” to electrocute Richardson.

They had shaved the hair off his body to facilitate a “clean” execution. The state had done nothing to modify the electric chair since the disastrous Evans execution. I thought about the botched execution of Horace Dunkins a month earlier and became even more distraught. I had tried to read up on what should happen at an execution; I had some misguided thought that I could intervene if they did something incorrectly.

Stevenson uses the well-publicized case of a wrongly convicted black man, Walter McMillian, to structure his narrative. McMillian was condemned to death row for murdering a young white woman, Ronda Morrison. That a farcical, albeit tragic, miscarriage of justice began in Monroe County, Alabama, home to Harper Lee, adds an ironic twist to the story. Atticus Finch is such a universally admired figure that we tend to forget even he couldn’t get justice to prevail in the case of Tom Robinson. Stevenson is determined to do better. He gives a blow-by-blow account of his legal sleuthing in the McMillian case. He maintains a superhuman cool when dealing with clients’ cases, but even he can’t always keep the lid down.

“This trial was constructed with lies,” I said. I was wary about expressing such strong opinions to Walter’s family because I hadn’t investigated the case enough to be sure there was more evidence to convict Walter. But reading the record of his trial had outraged me, and I felt that anger returning — not just about the injustice done to Walter but also about the way it had burdened the entire community. Everyone in the poor, black community who talked to me about the case had expressed hopelessness.

Stevenson realizes he can’t help McMillian until he finds out who was really responsible for the murders of Morrison and another young woman, Vickie Pittman. Following his investigation is akin to entering the surreal labyrinths of a Dostoevsky novel, without any of its literary pleasures. What’s fresh about Stevenson’s telling of this story is how McMillian really fared after he was exonerated and released after six years on death row. Despite McMillian’s good humor and his forgiving nature, despite Stevenson’s efforts, McMillian was unable to get his life on track in the way he’d hoped, and, after some years, he succumbed to a sense of having lost everything, and, eventually, to dementia. One relief is that McMillian was able to die “on God’s schedule,” as he’d hoped to. “Dying on some court schedule or some prison schedule ain’t right,” he’d said.

Reading about human beings moldering in the prison system, we have to ask ourselves why the US has so many people in prison. Why have those in prison for drug offenses increased from “41,000 in 1980” to 500,000 today? Why has the incarceration of women increased by “640 percent in the last thirty years”? Would these numbers be different if the prison-industrial complex were not a system that enriches a few contractors — private prison builders and prison service companies — who aggressively lobby the government for its continuing expansion? Federal and state governments spent “$6.9 billion” on prisons in 1980; that price tag has increased “to nearly $80 billion today.”

And why is the prison population weighted so heavily toward some races? With all the Michael Brown–style tragedies in the news, Stevenson’s observation on the issue is sobering, if not surprising.

In poor urban neighborhoods across the United States, black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. Even though many of these children have done nothing wrong, they are targeted by police, presumed guilty, and suspected by law enforcement of being dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. The random stops, questioning, and harassment dramatically increase the risk of arrest for petty crimes. Many of these children develop criminal records for behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity.

Some of these juveniles are later condemned to die in prison for non-homicidal crimes. Some have suffered a long history of poverty, neglect, and abuse; in their early teens, they may become immature accomplices rather than perpetrators of crime. Many are not defended properly or are tried in adult courts and locked away for life. Stevenson takes this fight all the way to the US Supreme Court, citing new medical research that establishes that

‘[…] dopaminergic activity within the socioemotional system around the time of puberty’ drives the young adolescent toward increased sensation-seeking and risk-taking […] and the full maturation of the cognitive control system, which occurs later, creates a period of heightened vulnerability to risk taking during middle adolescence.

In May 2010, Stevenson and his staff celebrate when the Supreme Court announces its decision: “Life imprisonment without parole sentences imposed on children convicted of non-homicide crimes is cruel and unusual punishment and constitutionally impermissible.” The landmark decision allows Stevenson to gain relief, at least in theory, for those who were incarcerated in their early teens to a death-in-prison sentence. He crisscrosses the country and drives hundreds of miles to meet such cases, who are now young men or women, sometimes at “a maximum security prison dominated by gangs and frequent violence.” Meeting these prisoners can be unexpectedly poignant.

It turns out that Ian was very, very bright. Although being smart and sensitive made his extended time in solitary confinement especially destructive, he had managed to educate himself, read hundreds of books, and write poetry and short stories that reflected an eager, robust intellect. He sent me dozens of letters and poems. […] Sometimes I’d find within a letter a scrap of wrinkled paper, which, once unfolded, would reveal thoughtful and sobering poems with titles like “Uncried Tears,” “Tied Up with Words,” “The Unforgiving Minute,” “Silence,” and “Wednesday Ritual.”

A few months after Hurricane Ivan hit coastal Alabama, Marsha Colbey, a poor white woman who lived in a trailer with her husband and their six children, gave birth — in her bathtub — to a stillborn seventh child. In an unbelievable turn of events, and with the aid of a forensic pathologist who “had a history of prematurely and incorrectly declaring deaths to be homicides without adequate supporting evidence,” overzealous prosecutors charged Colbey with “capital murder.” She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and sent to the Tutwiler Prison for Women, which had “become an overcrowded, dangerous nightmare for the women trapped there.” In such cases, does the State give any thought to, say, the six Colbey children who were left behind motherless? Ten years later, Stevenson and his staff at EJI were finally able to get Colbey freed. On the day of her release, her youngest child, now 12, clung to her mother for hours “as if she intended never to let anyone physically separate them ever again.”

Being in prison for life or being on death row is a life-shattering experience, and defending such inmates must be draining and require some über-recharging. Stevenson gives only slivers of insight about his own life, but whenever he does so, it’s as if a piece of the puzzle clicks into place. For instance, he learnt about warmth and closeness from his grandmother, who liked to hug him. “‘You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,’ she told me all the time.”

On occasion, community support revitalizes him. While working on the case of Walter McMillian, Stevenson feels embraced by McMillian’s extended family “in a way that energized me.” When he meets Rosa Parks on the front porch of a mutual friend, Virginia Durr, he tells Ms. Parks about his work and gets this response: “Ooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” To which, after some laughter, Ms. Durr adds: “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”

Stevenson’s bravery is nowhere in doubt in this book, and it is often the last hope for some of the most underprivileged and ill-treated people in our society. Still, even he can get discouraged when the caseload is daunting and the appeals process fails him. In one of the final chapters, Stevenson gives us a philosophical assessment of what it takes to empathize with others.

In the very hour that a death row prisoner he represented, Jimmy Dill, is being executed, Stevenson sits in his office and comes to the brink of walking away from his work. That is, until he realizes that we are all broken in some way, even if our brokenness is not “equivalent.” He thinks that if we can acknowledge our own brokenness, we’ll be more likely to show compassion for the brokenness of others, and not simply act on our fear and anger (and rely overly on putting people away in prison). It’s an interesting argument. At one point, Stevenson cites Sweden’s “progressive approach to the rehabilitation of criminal offenders,” making it a country that is focused on recovery, not on being punitive.

It is beyond the scope of this book to address the causes of hopelessness and violence in the black community in any but the most summary way, and that is exactly what Stevenson does. He points out that after slavery was abolished, there was a “collapse of Reconstruction,” followed by a period of “domestic terrorism” — by the Ku Klux Klan, the police, and white mobs — that scarred the black community. He suggests that we are quick to laud the Civil Rights Movement, and slow to see the damage done by the humiliations of racial segregation, which continue to seep into the everyday lives of black people, especially in the South. Even in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie, Stevenson is not always immune to a strip search from a prison guard with a tattoo of the Confederate Flag on his arm or a harsh comment from a judge who assumes he is a defendant, not counsel.

This book needs to be read and talked about. The recent confirmation of a “culture of violence” in Rikers Island rightfully led high-ranking corrections officials to step down. Is it too much to hope for a prison system across the country that shows no tolerance for abuse, a system that focuses more on the rehabilitation of prisoners? Stevenson’s work has earned him insights that are worth considering: people are more than (and ought not to be reduced to) their worst acts; when we see and acknowledge our “brokenness,” then the work of healing can truly begin.


Priyanka Kumar is an author and a filmmaker.

LARB Contributor

Priyanka Kumar is the author of the widely acclaimed book Conversations with Birds (2022). Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksOrion, and The Rumpus.


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