Stevenson receives a call from the grandmother of a fourteen-year-old boy named Charlie who has been in an Alabama jail for two nights. The grandmother is sick and lives in Virginia, but she begs Stevenson to help. Stevenson’s death row caseload is full and he knows that Charlie isn’t at risk for the death penalty. He explains that even though Alabama then held the world’s highest per-capita rate of juvenile death sentences, the Supreme Court had recently banned execution for crimes committed by children under 15. When Stevenson says he can’t take the case, Charlie’s grandmother begins to pray on the phone, asking God to guide him. Stevenson lets her finish and then offers to help Charlie find legal assistance elsewhere. When he reads Charlie’s file, Stevenson learns that he is a physically small boy who had a positive academic and behavioral record right up until he confessed to killing “a man named George.”
The statistics Stevenson cites here and in previous chapters regarding Alabama’s high death penalty rate help to explain why his caseload at this time is so full that he must begin turning down cases where the client’s life isn’t in danger. Stevenson tries to explain to Charlie’s grandmother that he can’t help, but he appears moved by the desperation and boldness she expresses by praying aloud while still on the phone. This vulnerable act conveys her attitude that Stevenson is accountable to God. Her prayer may resonate with Stevenson because of his own religious upbringing.
Stevenson writes that George, the boyfriend of Charlie’s mother, often came home drunk. George beat Charlie’s mother on several occasions to the point of needing emergency medical help. One night, George went out drinking against the pleas of Charlie’s mother. Charlie and his mom had dinner and were playing cards together when George returned, drunk. Charlie’s mom looked at George contemptuously, and he punched her. She fell, striking her head on the countertop. As she lay bleeding and unconscious, George went to bed. Panicking, Charlie tried to stop the bleeding with kitchen towels. She wouldn’t wake up, and Charlie worried that she was dead. Though timid and terrified of George, Charlie tip-toed into the bedroom to call 911. Seeing George asleep, Charlie was filled with rage. Reaching for the phone, he found himself instead getting George’s gun from the nightstand. He shot George in the head. His mother awoke, and Charlie called 911.
The circumstances of Charlie’s crime allow for deeper contemplation about the goals and moral values of the criminal justice system. While the aim of the justice system is ostensibly to punish wrongdoers and protect the innocent, the system fails to do either in the case of George and Charlie. As a small boy, Charlie can’t physically stop George from abusing his mother. He may not know how to report domestic abuse, or he may fear that George would get away with it and retaliate against Charlie for exposing him. Left vulnerable and fearing he had lost his mother, Charlie took justice and protection into his own hands.
Reading further into his case, Stevenson learns that George was a highly esteemed police officer and that the prosecutor had convinced the judge to try Charlie as a dangerous adult and send him to an adult jail. Stevenson goes to the jail to meet Charlie. Charlie is tiny—less than 100 pounds—and appears frightened. Stevenson tries to talk to Charlie, but the boy stares at the wall. Stevenson grows concerned and moves to sit next to him, explaining that he can’t help unless they can talk. Stevenson tries chatting about silly, random subjects, just hoping to get a response. Eventually, Charlie starts leaning on Stevenson, who responds by cautiously putting his arm around Charlie. Charlie immediately breaks down in tears. In between sobs, Charlie says that he has been violently raped by several male inmates. Stevenson lets Charlie cry for a long time. Charlie begs him not to leave, but Stevenson promises to come right back.
Stevenson shows how George’s status as a police officer allowed him to be held to a different standard with regard to domestic violence. Rather than considering the impact of George’s abuse, as evident by the mother’s injuries, the prosecution places all of the blame and focus on Charlie. Further, they send Charlie to a place where he is vulnerable to predatory adults. Stevenson’s diligent efforts to connect with Charlie display a protective, fatherly kind of concern that Charlie appears to need. Stevenson contrasts with the various exploitative adults who have collectively contributed to Charlie’s suffering.
Deeply angry with everyone who “allowed” it to happen, Stevenson informs a jail officer that Charlie has been raped. The officer shows little concern until Stevenson informs him of his plans to tell the judge, and then the officer agrees to keep Charlie away from other inmates for the day. Stevenson demands a same-day meeting with the judge and prosecutor and informs them that Charlie has been raped in the jail. They agree to move him to a protected single cell. Stevenson decides to take on the case and succeeds in having Charlie tried as a juvenile and transferred to a juvenile detention center. He regularly visits Charlie over the years, and describes the boy’s long struggle for recovery and self-forgiveness.
Stevenson’s anger at those who “allowed” Charlie’s rape to occur suggests that he holds responsible not only the assailants who attacked him, but anyone else who failed to prevent it by leaving Charlie in a vulnerable situation. Stevenson’s sense of personal responsibility and duty to protect Charlie cause him to reverse his earlier decision not to take the case. The judge and prosecution’s compliance with Stevenson’s request suggest that they may know they have made a mistake.
After telling Charlie’s story at a church meeting, Stevenson is approached by a middle-aged white couple from the country who offer their help. Mr. and Mrs. Jennings lost their only grandchild to suicide, and they write to Charlie offering to give to him the college money they’d saved for their grandson. Charlie’s grandmother has died and his mother is struggling, and the Jennings come to love and treasure Charlie like family. When Stevenson cautions Mrs. Jennings not to put overly high hopes on Charlie after all of his trauma, Mrs. Jennings tells Stevenson that “if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, and recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.” Charlie’s mother and the Jennings are all there when Charlie is released a few years later, and the Jennings keep their word to help him through college.
The story of the Jennings’ friendship with Charlie demonstrates the book’s emphasis on redemption, hope in the face of suffering, and the importance of community. The Jenningses don’t have any prior connection with Charlie, but the loss of their grandson and Charlie’s need for support creates a situation of mutual love. They can’t re-write their grandson’s tragic story, but by helping a traumatized young man to achieve a different outcome, they may themselves seek healing and redemption. Mrs. Jennings’ words to Stevenson articulate the importance of “expecting more” from humanity.