Just Mercy

Just Mercy

Just Mercy Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter begins with a poem by Ian Manuel, one of the inmates Stevenson features in this chapter who was incarcerated as a juvenile. The poem, “Uncried Tears,” describes the conflict between repressed tears and the conscience. The tears beg the conscience to be let free, telling the conscience, “Relinquish your fears and doubts, / And heal yourself in the process.” The conscience warns the tears that if they are freed, they will die. The tears respond: “If crying brings you to triumph/ Then dying’s not such a disaster.”
Stevenson’s choice to begin the chapter with Ian’s poem provides a space for the first-person voices and experiences of incarcerated juveniles. Ian’s poem personifies and separates his conscience from his emotions, suggesting that his guilt and his own pain are at odds with each other and need to be reconciled through the release and acceptance of his repressed feelings.
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Stevenson tells the story of Trina Garrett in Pennsylvania. The last of 12 children, many born from rape, Trina grew up in extreme poverty. She regularly witnessed her father brutally humiliate and beat her mother and siblings. Trina was nine when her mother died. When her father began sexually abusing her and her sisters, they ran away. Together, they moved between relatives, each time fleeing violence or sexual abuse, and always ending up homeless. Trina was often hospitalized for psychiatric problems, but she had no money to pay for long-term care.
Through the story of Trina’s family, Stevenson illustrates the themes of male violence and of generational cycles of physical and sexual abuse. He further suggests the relationship between poverty and trauma through the examples of Trina, her sisters, and their mother, all of whom were left especially vulnerable by poverty and then given no protection by the justice or social welfare systems.
Themes
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In 1976, fourteen-year-old Trina and her friend broke into the house of two friends whose mother had prohibited Trina from visiting. Trina lit her way with matches and accidentally caught the house on fire. The boys died. In court, the boys’ mother and the prosecutor insisted that Trina had murderous intent. Trina’s lawyer filed no paperwork to prove Trina’s psychological incompetence or to move her case to juvenile court. Trina was convicted as an adult of second-degree murder, and, despite the judge’s remorse and belief that Trina had no murderous intentions, he was required to impose a mandatory life sentence. At an adult women’s prison, a guard raped and impregnated Trina. She gave birth in shackles and her son was put into foster care. The guard was fired but not indicted, and the state offered Trina no compensation or support services. She won a civil suit against the guard, but he won an appeal on the grounds that Trina’s conviction hadn’t been disclosed. She developed several mental and physical illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, and she became bound to a wheelchair.
Through Trina’s experience, Stevenson illustrates several systemic failures. Local officials could have been notified of Trina’s situation when she was hospitalized for psychiatric problems, but the system’s failure to intervene left a mentally ill homeless child unattended, posing a threat to public safety. Trina’s court-appointed lawyer failed to advocate effectively on her behalf, leaving Trina to be given the harshest available sentence. Mandatory sentencing gives the judge no room for showing mercy, forcing him to act against his conscience. Stevenson illustrates the inequity of the justice system by juxtaposing Trina’s life sentence for an unintended crime with the immunity the local justice system gives to the guard who raped her.
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In Florida in 1990, thirteen-year-old Ian Manuel, a homeless boy abandoned by his family, went with two older boys to rob a couple at gunpoint. When Debbie Baigre fought back, Ian shot her, severely injuring her jaw. His lawyer failed to educate himself about sentencing laws and mistakenly told Ian to plead guilty to attempted homicide. Ian was given a life sentence. Aware of the risk of rape for juveniles in adult prisons, prison officials put Ian in solitary confinement. Stevenson describes the conditions of solitary confinement, which include very minimal exercise and human contact. Ian developed severe emotional problems and the habit of cutting himself. He was consequently kept in solitary confinement for eighteen years. With no family, Ian reached out to Ms. Baigre. She accepted his profuse apologies and became his friend and advocate. Nevertheless, the State refused her well-publicized pleas to soften Ian’s sentence.
Stevenson again illustrates that child poverty and homelessness are connected to an increased risk of juvenile crimes. In addition, the failures of the attorneys representing Trina and Ian suggest the consequences for poor clients who can’t afford to pay for better counsel. This seems to imply a responsibility on the part of court-appointed attorneys, one that is often betrayed. Ian’s mental health issues appear related to his confinement, yet rather than treat his issues or remove him from confinement, the prison’s only recourse is to perpetuate his issues by keeping him in solitary. The State’s unwillingness to reconsider contrasts with Ms. Baigre’s forgiveness, which is especially striking given her status as the victim.
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Antonio Nuñez grew up in Los Angeles with a physically abusive and neglectful father. As a child, he was put on probation for nonviolent offences. Stevenson writes that due to police profiling, poor and minority youth often develop criminal records for “behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity.” In 1999, a drive-by shooter injured Antonio and killed Antonio’s older brother. Antonio went to live with relatives in a safer community in Nevada, where his grades and behavior improved. His probation officer ordered him back to California, where his wellbeing and behavior suffered. He befriended older men who pressured him to join a fake kidnapping scheme. When undercover police started chasing their van, Antonio’s friends made him shoot at them. Antonio was charged with aggravated kidnapping and attempted murder of police. The judge argued that Antonio was a violent, irredeemable gang member, and sentenced him to life in prison.
Stevenson again demonstrates the connection between childhood abuse and neglect and early criminal activity, this time including the impact of neighborhood and community conditions. The judge’s perception of Antonio as hopeless indicates that he considers Antonio to be innately bad. The judge fails to see Antonio as a youth who is still developing. In contrast, Stevenson demonstrates the connection between changes in Antonio’s environment and changes in his behavior, suggesting this should have been considered. Stevenson’s argument regarding police profiling further supports the book’s arguments about discrimination in the criminal justice system against minorities and the poor
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Stevenson writes that the criminalization of youth was more rare in the past, with the exception of black youth. In South Carolina in 1944, George Stinney, a black fourteen-year-old, helped locals search for two missing white girls. George told the search party that he’d seen the girls earlier looking for a place to pick flowers. When they were found dead in a ditch the following day, George was arrested for murder because he was the last person to see them. Word got out, and a lynch mob chased George’s family out of town. The sheriff claimed that George confessed to the murder. In a courtroom where no other black people were allowed, George’s lawyer offered no defense. When George was executed, he was so small he had to sit on the Bible he’d carried with him in order to reach the electrodes. Years later, an affluent local white man confessed to the murder.
George’s example supports Stevenson’s arguments about the history of racial disparity in the criminal justice system. George’s attempts to help find the girls backfired on him, and he was effectively punished for his honesty, for being black, and for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His story illustrates the vulnerability of black individuals when white communities look for a scapegoat, a situation that parallels Walter’s story. Stevenson’s depiction of George sitting on his bible as he is killed draws attention to his helplessness as a child and paints an image of mercilessness and tragedy.
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Stevenson writes that in the 1980’s and 90’s, social and political scientists publically forecasted increased rates of juvenile crimes from “super-predators,” youth who were hardened, toughened, and capable of adult-sized crimes with no shame. This image was especially applied to minority children. In response, courts around the country began trying more children as adults and sending them to adult prisons. Mandatory laws were established in some states that forced relocation of children already serving time in juvenile detention to adult prisons. Years later, experts discovered a proportionate decrease in juvenile crime during the 1990’s and determined there had been no basis for the “super-predator theory”. Stevenson writes: “This admission came too late for kids like Trina, Ian and Antonio.”
Stevenson illustrates the power of scientists to influence public opinion, policy, and the criminal justice system. This emphasizes the role of researchers and the media in perpetuating the beliefs that will have real-life consequences for individuals. Stevenson demonstrates how the practice of trying children as adults relies on the perception that some children are irredeemably dangerous. This perception ignores the complexities of childhood development and the effects of a child’s environment on his or her behavior.
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EJI began representing Ian, Trina, and Antonio years after their convictions, and the organization decided to fight laws allowing “death-in-prison” sentences for juveniles. EJI helped Trina reconnect with her sisters and son, which Stevenson writes “strengthened her in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible.” Despite his learning disability, Antonio asked Stevenson to send him books that would help him “better understand those around him.” Ian had used his time in solitary to become an avid reader and writer of short stories and poetry. Stevenson arranged for a photographer to take Ian’s picture for a report about juveniles serving life sentences. Ian wrote Stevenson a heartfelt letter saying he “cherish[ed]” his visits, as he does any human interaction. Ian politely offered to send Stevenson one dollar from his small commissary in exchange for copies of the photos, saying they would mean almost as much to him as his freedom.
EJI’s efforts on behalf of Trina, Ian and Antonio go beyond legal advocacy and include efforts to improve their quality of life. This supports the importance of improving prison conditions and of supporting emotional and mental health for inmates. Trina’s improvement after making contact with her family suggests that her emotional health problems were connected to her loneliness and lack of support. Ian’s reading and writing show his determination to survive emotionally. The spirit of his letter shows his self-awareness and shows how much small things mean to him after a life of deprivation and isolation.
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