Just Mercy

Just Mercy

Just Mercy Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Stevenson describes the “decline” of Walter’s emotional and mental state. Walter develops memory problems and has difficulty running his business. He begins drinking alcohol to manage anxiety. Walter’s doctor diagnoses him with advancing dementia related to trauma, and the doctor tells Stevenson that he expects Walter will soon be “incapacitated.” With Stevenson’s help, Walter’s family decides to put him in long-term care. EJI’s new social worker Maria Morrison tries to get Walter into a nursing home, but many facilities refuse him for his felony record, refusing to hear any reasoning about his reversed conviction. EJI eventually succeeds in getting Walter into a temporary nursing home. At the time, EJI was awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on Joe Sullivan’s case and faced financial uncertainty and an incredibly large death row docket with impending execution dates. Stevenson writes that the combination of stresses and his sadness over Walter’s condition made him “deeply distressed.”
Stevenson illustrates the connection between Walter’s trauma and his declining health. This shows how Walter’s conviction and his time on death row created loss that far exceeded just the years he spent in prison; Walter’s experience damaged his emotional and mental health to such a severe extent that it induced incapacitating dementia, which took even more of his time and life from him and his family. This is an example of the “collateral consequences” of failures of the justice system. Stevenson’s involvement in Walter’s care shows the depth of their friendship and Stevenson’s sense of responsibility for Walter. He treats Walter like they are family.
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Stevenson visits Walter‘s temporary nursing home in Montgomery. He is distraught to find Walter disoriented and unkempt when he arrives. Walter becomes cheerful when he sees Stevenson, whom he recognizes even though he has begun struggling with recognizing relatives. Walter begins talking cheerfully about his “cars.” He then becomes anxious as he talks about being back on death row. Stevenson tries to explain that is in a hospital, not prison. Walter breaks down crying, begging Stevenson to help him get off “the row” again. Stevenson helps Walter fall asleep and then talks to a nurse, who confirms Walter’s frequent anxiety about death row. The nurse explains that when the staff researched his past, some became afraid of Walter. Stevenson assures her that Walter was proven innocent. The nurse expresses her own understanding and compassion, yet explains that others believe that prison makes people “dangerous” regardless. Stevenson isn’t able to “muster” a counterargument.
Stevenson’s distress about Walter’s condition is loaded with his investment in Walter’s wellbeing and the frustration that comes from his understanding of how Walter’s condition was caused. Stevenson has fought years of legal battles on Walter’s behalf, but he now finds himself powerless to defeat the effects of prison on Walter’s mind. Walter’s delusional belief that he is back on death row proves his enduring trauma. The nurse’s comments suggest the permanent condemnation applied to felons, even if there is documented evidence of their innocence. Stevenson’s inability to respond shows his own sense of emotional exhaustion.
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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, who has been managing efforts to block impending executions. He tells Susskind about his difficult visit with Walter and they are “silent on the phone for a while.” Stevenson describes Alabama’s “increasing rate of executions,” which contrasts with the overall national decline in executions due to activism and changing views, even in other conservative states like Texas. Stevenson names the men executed in Alabama in 2009, despite EJI efforts: Jimmy Callahan, Danny Bradley, Max Payne, Jack Trawick, and Willie McNair.
The silence between Stevenson and Susskind on the phone shows that they have an emotionally close friendship. Considering Stevenson’s many other friendships at EJI, it appears that Stevenson’s work and life are tightly woven together, likely due to the consuming and emotional nature of his work. By mentioning all the executed men by name, Stevenson conveys the sense that their individual identities should be remembered.
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Stevenson writes that by the late 2000’s lethal injection had replaced other forms of execution. While it was intended to cause less painful deaths, Stevenson describes the medical complications and pain associated with lethal injection. A European euthanasia drug, banned for animal use due to painful effects, was imported until Europeans discovered its use in U.S. executions and stopped exporting it. The Supreme Court reviewed but failed to outlaw the use of illegally obtained euthanasia in executions. Stevenson describes the stress on EJI due to the challenge of keeping up with the increasing execution rate and the organization’s efforts to challenge life sentences for non-homicide juvenile cases throughout the country. Stevenson continues to struggle with finding appropriate care for Walter and coping with his decline.
The fact that the European euthanasia drug was banned for animal use but considered to be suitable for human executions conveys the idea that humans sentenced to death are regarded as less worthy of care and consideration than animals. The fact that the Europeans stopped shipping the drug when they discovered how it was being used serves as a reminder of the difference between American and European views on criminal justice and the death penalty. By listing in a consecutive series the stressful circumstances facing EJI, Stevenson conjures his feeling of anxiety at the time.
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EJI takes on the case of Jimmy Dill, an intellectually disabled man scheduled to die in 30 days. Jimmy had been physically and sexually abused as a child. As an adult, he severely injured another man during a drug-related fight. The man died nine months later, after his wife left him without a caregiver. The state prosecutors then made an “unusual” move to change Jimmy’s charges from assault to capital murder. Jimmy’s lawyers failed to inform Jimmy of a plea offer made by the state or to present evidence regarding Jimmy’s mental condition and the victim’s actual cause of death. Jimmy was sentenced to death and he couldn’t afford legal counsel. Despite a recent law banning the death penalty for the mentally retarded, EJI is unable to find a judge willing to review Jimmy’s case so close to his execution. EJI files a stay motion with the Supreme Court, which is denied.
Stevenson describes yet another account of a man on death row whose life has shown a pattern of unfortunate circumstances and grave mistakes. Like many others in the book, Jimmy was abused as a child, suffered from his harsh environment, and lacked the education, effective counsel, and financial resources needed to seek a different judicial outcome. This illustrates how certain environmental and biological disadvantages predispose individuals to dangerous and/or violent choices and also lead them to face harsher consequences than their more privileged counterparts for the same kinds of mistakes.
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Within an hour of his execution, Stevenson calls Jimmy to inform him of the Supreme Court’s decision. Jimmy, who suffers from a severe speech impediment that is worsened by anxiety, tries to calm his panic and disappointment so he can thank Stevenson for all of his efforts. Stevenson begins to cry. He suddenly remembers when, as child at church with his mother, he met another little boy with a stutter. Out of ignorance, he laughed at the boy’s speech. Deeply disappointed, his mother instructed Stevenson to apologize, hug the boy, and say that he loved him. Reluctantly, Stevenson did just as his mother said. To his surprise, the boy hugged him back and said: “I love you, too,” causing Stevenson to cry. Stevenson feels shaken by Jimmy’s kindness and the injustice of his death, which could have prevented if he’d been able to afford a better lawyer.
Like the story of Herbert Richardson’s death in Chapter 4, Stevenson’s account of Jimmy Dill brings to life the emotional reality of execution. Stevenson’s “brokenhearted” feeling is conveyed by the images of Jimmy waiting for a phone call that could halt his imminent death and then trying to stay calm and overcome his stutter so that he can use his last moments to express gratitude. Stevenson’s detailed memory of the little boy who has the same disability and capacity for unexpected kindness as Jimmy evokes the cruelty, sadness, and grace that characterize the situation.
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After getting off the phone with Jimmy Dill, Stevenson feels heavy hearted and defeated. He feels overwhelmed by years of witnessing tragedy, abuse, and injustice. He asks himself why he can’t just quit. In considering this question, he realizes that, like his clients, he has been “broken” by the desperation, death, and cruelty he has fought against and witnessed. He argues that everyone is broken by some harm they’ve caused or experienced. He thinks of the officers carrying out Jimmy’s execution, and how they are broken by their involvement. He defines “brokenness” as humanity’s shared guilt, pain, and imperfection, and he reasons that this common condition gives every human the need for mercy and compassion. He argues that if individuals accept their own “brokenness”, they will be more merciful and compassionate toward other “broken people” instead of seeking harsh punishment for the “most vulnerable”: traumatized children, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the poor.
Stevenson’s concept of “brokenness” connects to the arguments laid out in the introduction and illustrated throughout the book regarding the reciprocal need for mercy on the part of everyone involved in hurt and suffering. What is different is that now he extends his argument beyond just those implicated in the criminal justice system. Now, his message comes into focus: rather than being a social ill that only afflicts certain groups, the ability to feel and impose pain is an inescapable part of the human condition. What is preventable, however, is the escalating cycle that is caused when humans fail to learn from hurt, admit fault or vulnerability, seek reconciliation, and learn from their experiences of culpability and victimhood.
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Stevenson rewinds in time to when he met Rosa Parks shortly after moving to Montgomery. He’d become friends with a friend of hers, a “spirited” lady and Civil Rights veteran named Johnnie Carr. Ms. Carr often ordered him to come “speak” or “listen” at various meetings, and he always obeyed respectfully. One day, Ms. Carr invited him over to “listen” at the home of Virginia Durr, another woman who had worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. Stevenson describes how the women laughed and told stories. When Rosa Parks asked Stevenson about his work, he described in detail all of the efforts of EJI to fight racism, injustice and poverty. Rosa Parks laughed and said: “Ooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” Ms. Carr got close to him, like his grandmother often had, and added: “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
The memory of Stevenson’s meeting with Rosa Parks is carefully placed at this point in the book to provide a frame of reference for struggle and hope. At a point when Stevenson feels exhausted and defeated, the memory of Rosa Parks evokes the long history of tired, relentless people before him who fought for civil rights despite powerful forces. His focus on Ms. Carr’s use of the word “listen” suggests his awareness of the many lessons he has to learn from her and other wise, longtime activists. Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr gave him the answer to his current problem: the more tired he feels, the braver he must be.
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Returning to the night of Jimmy Dill’s death, Stevenson realizes that it is “time to stop all this foolishness about quitting.” He reads an email from a high school in a poor neighborhood, inviting him to come speak about “remaining hopeful.” He considers the struggles the school’s children will face in their futures, and he responds that he will come. Driving home, he hears a minister on the radio quoting scripture about the strength of weakness caused by carrying many burdens. Stevenson thinks of the young boy with the stutter who hugged him, and he reflects that he didn’t “deserve” the boy’s mercy. Nevertheless, he considers it an act of “reconciliation: it was all the more important because it wasn’t deserved. Stevenson writes that unexpected mercy is “strong enough to break the cycle” of injury and suffering and lead to real healing. Despite his heartbreak, he resolves to continue his work.
By writing that it was “time to stop all this foolishness about quitting” right after describing his meeting with Rosa Parks, Stevenson suggests that he regained his strength and focus by reflecting on the wisdom, support, and resilience of various teachers in his life. The email from the high school reminds Stevenson that, regardless of his own grief, there are still other young people whose paths can be altered by Stevenson’s wisdom and support. In this way, he shows how each generation can prepare the next for the struggles they will face. Remembering a moment when he received undeserved mercy reminds Stevenson that reconciliation is an integral and achievable part of justice.
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