Just Mercy

Just Mercy

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Walter McMillian Character Analysis

Walter’s legal case serves as the central storyline of the book. Born to a poor black family outside of Monroeville, Alabama, Walter became a successful small businessman as an adult. He had a large, tight-knit family and several children with his wife Minnie, but, following an affair with a white woman, Walter was falsely accused and convicted of murdering a different white woman. The book revolves around Stevenson’s efforts to get Walter’s conviction reversed, thereby saving him from the death penalty. Walter is described as being good-humored, forgiving, and gentle. Stevenson’s close friendship with Walter is the central relationship in the book.

Walter McMillian Quotes in Just Mercy

The Just Mercy quotes below are all either spoken by Walter McMillian or refer to Walter McMillian. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Spiegel & Grau edition of Just Mercy published in 2015.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no roots.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Walter McMillian, Harper Lee
Related Symbols: To Kill a Mockingbird
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Stevenson references Harper Lee’s celebrated novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which has many parallels to Walter’s trial and conviction. Like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, Walter is a black man falsely accused of a crime by an angry white community. Ironically, Harper Lee was from Monroe County, which is also Walter’s hometown and the location of his arrest and trial. While the town of Monroeville celebrates its connection to Lee’s novel with banners, performances, and events, the local community doesn’t seem aware of the contradiction between their pride in Lee’s fame and their failure to learn from her novel’s warnings about racial prejudice, presumptions of guilt, and the importance of empathy.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

We’re going to keep all you niggers from running around with these white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile.

Related Characters: Sheriff Tom Tate (speaker), Walter McMillian
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Tate makes this threat to Walter while interrogating him about the murder of Ronda Morrison. That Tate makes these statements during an official interrogation demonstrates the racism that underlies the State’s treatment of Walter and it strongly suggests that Tate is framing Walter for murder because he is black. Tate’s use of the word “we” when referencing a recent lynching also suggests his involvement with the KKK.

Tate views Walter’s interracial romance with Karen Kelly as a social transgression, and it’s this, in particular, that has inspired such hatred and fear of Walter in Tate. This relates to the South’s long history of anti-miscegenation laws aimed at criminalizing interracial romance and, in particular, at punishing black men for their involvement with white women.

Even though Tate is a leader of local law enforcement, he still sees illegal mob violence as a reasonable punishment for a social transgression. This rationale suggests the resilient legacy of Jim Crow laws in Monroeville even after many of these laws have been struck down.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I feel like they done put me on death row, too. What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm’s way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain’t do and send you to death row?

Related Characters: Armelia (speaker), Bryan Stevenson, Walter McMillian
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In a meeting with Stevenson at Walter’s family’s house, Walter’s sister Armelia speaks before a crowd of relatives and community members. Armelia, along with many of those present, were with Walter on the day of Ronda Morrison’s murder. Yet, the state has completely discounted the alibis they have given for Walter and disregarded their testimony.

Because her reality and her memory have been disregarded, and because an important person in her life has been unlawfully taken away, Armelia feels like she, too, has been condemned. Her comments show how the family members and others connected to the condemned also become victimized by abuses of the criminal justice system. Armelia also suggests that nobody in their community is safe if the State can arbitrarily convict any of them of a crime and send them to death row. This illustrates Stevenson’s argument that failures of the justice system impose “collateral consequences” on the families and communities of those incarcerated.

Chapter 7 Quotes

You know they’ll try to kill you if you actually get to the bottom of everything.

Related Characters: Ralph Myers (speaker), Bryan Stevenson, Walter McMillian, Michael O’Connor
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

After reaching out to EJI for help in recanting his false testimony, Myers warns Stevenson and Michael that their lives might be in danger because of their involvement in Walter’s case. The “they” to which Myers refers is the State and local law enforcement in Monroeville. Myers is speaking from experience here: he has faced intimidation and cruelty at the hands of law enforcement officials who aimed to keep Myers from recanting his testimony. While Myers’ words demonstrate his own capacity for dramatic storytelling (confirming Stevenson’s depiction of his character), this statement also speaks to the growing hatred in the community of Monroeville toward anyone trying to defend or exonerate Walter or expose the corruption of local officials. This should evoke the specter of the Jim Crow era when force, manipulation, and even lethal violence were used to keep marginalized groups from gaining power. Myers’ prediction later proves somewhat true: EJI begins receiving bomb threats for its efforts to shed light on the truth of Walter’s conviction.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Walter’s sense of humor hadn’t failed him despite his six years on death row. And this case had given him lots of fodder. We would often talk about situations and people connected to the case that, for all the damage they had caused, had still made us laugh at their absurdity. But the laughter today felt very different. It was the laughter of liberation.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Walter McMillian
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Walter has just been released from death row. On the day of his release, he cheerfully greets his friends and family and drives around with Stevenson arranging some of his affairs.

The strong friendship that has grown between Walter and Stevenson is depicted through Stevenson’s observations about Walter’s sense of humor and his reflections on the many times they’ve laughed together. Through his description of Walter’s sense of humor, Stevenson shows Walter’s character to be not only good-natured, but also optimistic and resilient. This passage also suggests that laughter has provided an effective coping mechanism for both Walter and Stevenson during their long, frustrating ordeal. This was not a coping mechanism that allowed them not to face reality: it seems that the ability to laugh at the difficulties they faced gave them the strength to continue to fight, which is a powerful argument for optimism in the face of impossible odds.

Chapter 13 Quotes

His story was a counter narrative to the rhetoric of fairness and reliability offered by politicians and law enforcement officials who wanted more and faster executions. Walter’s case complicated the debate in very graphic ways.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Walter McMillian
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

After Walter’s release, he accompanies Stevenson to conferences and events throughout the country, sharing his experience and participating in the national discourse around the death penalty. Walter’s case receives media coverage to a degree that exceeds other previous stories of death row exonerations.

Here, Stevenson describes how Walter’s case challenged national political debates about the death penalty. The details of Walter’s case showed the public how false witnesses, bribery, threats, and corruption led to his conviction and sentence. The clear corruption and life-and-death stakes of the case captivated the public and enabled people to begin to question whether the death penalty was ever appropriate, given the flawed nature of the criminal justice system. Walter’s case also shows how media sensationalism can affect policy: the case gained so much attention because its particulars were so outrageous and unsavory. Many exonerated felons do not have stories that can captured the public imagination, even though they face similar suffering to Walter.

He became uncharacteristically emotional. “They put me on death row for six years! They threatened me for six years. They tortured me with the promise of execution for six years. I lost my job. I lost my life. I lost my reputation. I lost my – I lost my dignity.”

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Walter McMillian (speaker)
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

While staying in Sweden to receive a human rights award, Stevenson sees a story broadcast by a Swedish TV station about his work at EJI. The film crew had come to the United States and interviewed several of EJI’s clients, including Walter. Walter had given his interview without Stevenson present, so Stevenson sees Walter’s interview for the first time on TV in Sweden.

Walter’s expressions of distress during his interview are indications of his trouble coping with the emotional and psychological aftermath of his time on death row. This scene supports Stevenson’s arguments regarding the lasting and damaging impact of failures of the criminal justice system. Stevenson speaks of these issues as being the “collateral” or secondary “consequences” of incarceration: even though EJI won the legal battle on Walter’s behalf, nothing can reverse the lasting effects the experience had on him. This passage also begins to hint at Walter’s psychological decline. Stevenson is somewhat surprised by Walter’s comportment on TV, which suggests an ominous distance growing between them.

Chapter 15 Quotes

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness, even if our brokenness is not equivalent […] Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, foreswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

Related Characters: Bryan Stevenson (speaker), Walter McMillian, Jimmy Dill, The little boy at church
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

Just after the execution of Jimmy Dill, Stevenson faces a crisis of faith. With Walter dying from advancing dementia, Stevenson is especially tired and sad, and, despite his best efforts, Stevenson was unable to secure a motion to stay Jimmy’s execution. On the phone with Jimmy moments before his execution, Stevenson weeps. As Jimmy’s works hard to overcome his stutter so he can express his gratitude, Stevenson is reminded of a little boy he once met at church who also had a stutter. After they hang up, Stevenson is heartbroken, emotionally exhausted, and overwhelmed by the persistence of injustice. For the first time, he considers the thought of quitting.

His realization that he has been “broken” by the injustices and cruelty he has witnessed, however, creates in him a new understanding of his work. His thought that everyone is “broken” relates to his earlier argument that everyone will, at some point, need mercy from others. Only those who deny their own shame and pain are able to continue inflicting pain on others; seeing one’s own pain and shame makes it much harder to pass the cycle of pain onto other people. This suggests that, in addition to empathy for others, self-reflection and admitting personal vulnerability can help to stop cycles of violence.

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Walter McMillian Character Timeline in Just Mercy

The timeline below shows where the character Walter McMillian appears in Just Mercy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Higher Ground
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Stevenson explains that he will focus on the story of Walter McMillian to illustrate the justice system’s tendency to tolerate unfairness and to “victimize” the condemned.... (full context)
Chapter 1: Mockingbird Players
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...general, Stevenson is amused. Judge Key warns Stevenson not to take on the case of Walter McMillian, who Key claims is “one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South... (full context)
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...death row inmates. One of the many Alabama cases assigned to him is that of Walter McMillian. During their first meeting, Walter stands out to Stevenson because of his insistence that... (full context)
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As Stevenson leads into the story of Walter’s life and trial, he begins by discussing Walter’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Monroeville was also... (full context)
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...industry in its place. The shift largely benefited white landowners and left most blacks unemployed. Walter McMillian grew up picking cotton, just like most of the other children in the poor... (full context)
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Walter had a history of cheating on his wife, Minnie, with whom he had five children.... (full context)
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A few weeks after Walter testifies at Karen Kelly’s custody hearing, the body of Ronda Morrison is found on the... (full context)
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At the same time, Walter is trying to break up with Karen, who has started abusing drugs with her new... (full context)
Chapter 3: Trials and Tribulations
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Returning to the events leading up to Walter’s conviction, Stevenson describes the investigators’ next move after Myers failed to identify Walter. Stevenson remarks... (full context)
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Stevenson recounts the story that Ralph Myers gave to police. According to Myers, Walter kidnapped him at a gas station at gunpoint. Walter forced Myers to drive his truck... (full context)
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The police indict Walter for the murder of Ronda Morrison to the “joy and relief” of the white community.... (full context)
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...reinstated in 1975, the majority of Alabama death row inmates have been black, although when Walter arrived 40% were white. Inmates are held for 23 hours a day in a minimal... (full context)
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Walter believes that soon investigators will realize their mistake and let him go. As time passes,... (full context)
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...that the practice is occurring. When Chestnut and Boynton filed the standard motion to have Walter’s case moved to avoid local bias, they were surprised when Ted Pearson supported their request... (full context)
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Walter’s February trial is postponed until August after the key witness, Myers, again refuses to testify.... (full context)
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At Walter’s trial, Ted Pearson uses preemptory strikes to eliminate all but one of the black jurors.... (full context)
Chapter 5: Of the Coming of John
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...after Herbert’s execution, Stevenson visits death row to catch up with several new clients, including Walter. Afterward, he travels to Monroeville to meet Walter’s large extended family. Gathered together in a... (full context)
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Stevenson rewinds to his arrival at Walter’s home. He first notices the home’s disrepair and the familiar signs of poverty. Walter’s wife... (full context)
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...“an entire community hidden away in the woods.” When Stevenson first enters the trailer of Walter’s relatives, everyone stares at him for a moment before breaking out into applause. He expresses... (full context)
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...invested their hopes in him, and he sees a parallel in the anguish felt by Walter’s community. (full context)
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Stevenson describes his growing familiarity with Walter. He writes of the many local white people who defend Walter’s character, including Sam Crook,... (full context)
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...because they were working together on the morning of Ronda’s death. Darnell explains that after Walter’s conviction, he had informed Chestnut and Boynton, but Judge Key had denied their motion for... (full context)
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...at the Monroe County Courthouse, Stevenson’s hopes fade as Chapman expresses his unquestioning belief in Walter’s guilt, based mostly on the intensity of the local community’s anger. Stevenson argues that if... (full context)
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...is tell the truth.” Now that the retrial has been denied, Stevenson’s next step in Walter’s case is to request a direct appeal. If that fails, Stevenson will have to put... (full context)
Chapter 7: Justice Denied
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Stevenson requests a direct appeal of Walter’s conviction. In his written brief, he notes several flaws in Walter’s case, including faulty witness... (full context)
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Stevenson encourages Walter to remain hopeful because they have new evidence and several remaining options, including a reconsideration... (full context)
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...at the Tutwiler Women’s Prison for the Pittman murder. Karen confirms that Myers never met Walter, and informs them that during her own criminal investigations, Sherriff Tate had taunted her for... (full context)
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With Walter’s direct appeal pending, Stevenson and Michael file a Rule 32 petition, which would allow them... (full context)
Chapter 9: I’m Here
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Stevenson describes the situation preceding Walter’s Rule 32 hearing. Stevenson suggests that District Attorney Tom Chapman seriously reconsider his position before... (full context)
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The hearing begins. Stevenson recounts the story Myers gave during Walter’s trial. He highlights that the State never searched for the white man Myers described as... (full context)
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Stevenson next calls to the stand Clay Kast, Walter’s white mechanic. Kast states that he has records to prove that Walter’s truck was modified... (full context)
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The next morning, Stevenson finds Walter’s supporters waiting outside of the courtroom because they aren’t being allowed in. A deputy sheriff... (full context)
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...was being held on death row as punishment for refusing to continue his testimony against Walter. Stevenson comments that the hospital’s records of Myer’s recantation of his statement should have been... (full context)
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...testimony while Ikner, Tate and Benson coerce him to continue. Stevenson finishes by calling on Walter’s trial lawyers, Boynton and Chestnut. Surprisingly, the prosecution offers no rebuttal. They must now await... (full context)
Chapter 11: I’ll Fly Away
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After Walter’s hearing, EJI continues to receive bomb threats. Their staff is growing, and now includes summer... (full context)
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...of the other witness testimonies. He writes that Norton was uninterested in the subject of Walter’s guilt because the judge was “locked into a maintenance role […] a custodian for the... (full context)
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...career,” but had become passionate about the work of EJI after interning one summer. After Walter’s hearing, many more in Monroeville come forward with leads and stories of corruption. (full context)
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Stevenson realizes the need to change Walter’s public image to make his return safer should EJI secure his release. Stevenson is wary... (full context)
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Stevenson agrees to work with the CBS program 60 Minutes to produce a story about Walter’s case. Their reporters come to Monroeville and interview Walter, Myers, Chapman, and everyone involved in... (full context)
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...an innocent man in prison until the real murderer is found. Stevenson tries to hasten Walter’s appeal, but State officials ask him for “patience.” Stevenson is furious when the State requests... (full context)
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...rushes to the courthouse to pick up the 35-page ruling in which the judge nullifies Walter’s sentence and conviction and mandates a new trial. Stevenson drives to death row to tell... (full context)
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Before a new trial can be scheduled, Stevenson files a motion to have all of Walter’s charges dropped. The State decides to join rather than oppose the motion. Before the hearing,... (full context)
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The morning of the hearing, Stevenson tells Walter about his conversation with Minnie. Walter seems sad, but he tells Stevenson: “nothing can really... (full context)
Chapter 13: Recovery
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Stevenson describes Walter’s life after his release. Media attention about his case intensifies, and Walter’s story is featured... (full context)
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EJI pursues financial compensation for Walter. They seek help from Stevenson’s friend Rob McDuff, a “charming” white southern litigator who’d been... (full context)
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Walter returns to Monroeville and starts a logging business. The familiar outdoor work gives him a... (full context)
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...A camera crew came to the U.S. to interview EJI and people they’d represented, including Walter. Discussing the interview over the phone, Walter told Stevenson that he wanted Stevenson to come... (full context)
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...he sees the report about EJI for the first time. In front of the camera, Walter breaks down in tears as he describes how he “lost everything.” Stevenson is worried and... (full context)
Chapter 15: Broken
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Stevenson describes the “decline” of Walter’s emotional and mental state. Walter develops memory problems and has difficulty running his business. He... (full context)
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Stevenson visits Walter‘s temporary nursing home in Montgomery. He is distraught to find Walter disoriented and unkempt when... (full context)
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Just after Stevenson’s visit with Walter, he finds out that another execution is scheduled. He calls EJI deputy director Randy Susskind,... (full context)
Epilogue
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The epilogue begins: “Walter died on September 11, 2013.” Stevenson describes Walter’s kindness despite his disorientation during his last... (full context)
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In his funeral speech, Stevenson explains that “Walter had become like a brother” to him. He remarks on how Walter “came out with... (full context)