The book begins with Bryan Stevenson’s first-person account of a moment in the summer of 1983 when he was a third-year Harvard law student interning in Georgia. During his drive to a rural prison to meet a death-row inmate for the first time, Stevenson feels anxious because he has little knowledge of death penalty litigation and he is unsure of how to speak to a death row inmate.
Stevenson’s choice to open by zooming in on the anxious moments before his first interaction with a death row inmate grounds the book’s focus on advocacy as a journey. It also foreshadows the importance of learning through experience and direct human interaction.
Stevenson rewinds, describing his journey to this moment. He majors in philosophy and applies to a joint law school and public policy program, despite that he has no background in law, because he wants to fight economic and racial injustice. At Harvard, he finds the atmosphere too competitive and the academics too abstract, but when he takes a class on race and poverty litigation, “everything [comes] into focus.” The next summer, he goes to Georgia to intern for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). On the plane, he meets the impassioned director, Steve Bright. At the SPDC, Stevenson finds an atmosphere of dedication and mutual support. After years of being outlawed, the death penalty has just been reinstated. The office receives calls daily from inmates scheduled to die without legal counsel. Stevenson is assigned to make a visit to one of these inmates to reassure him he won’t die in the next year.
Stevenson’s description of his path to finding purpose in the law emphasizes the importance he places on the practical application of knowledge. For Stevenson, real-life stories of the poor and of racial minorities (and later the real-life stories of death row inmates) make the law feel relevant to him. This underscores the significance Stevenson places on humanizing and understanding the people and groups impacted by the law. The contrast between how he describes the atmospheres of Harvard and of the SPDC illustrates the role of atmosphere and community in the book. Communities create and reinforce values and they impact the emotional states and goals of their members.
At Jackson prison in Georgia, a hostile guard meets Stevenson. In the visitor center, the guards bring out Henry, a young black man with his hands and ankles shackled. Henry reminds Stevenson of his friends and relatives from home. Stevenson begins with several apologies until he stammers out the message that Henry won’t be executed in the next year. Henry takes Stevenson’s hand and expresses deep relief. They spend three hours talking and sharing life stories. The guard enters and warns Stevenson he has overstayed. The guard shackles Henry tightly and ignores Stevenson’s request to loosen the cuffs. Henry tells Stevenson not to worry, but to remember to visit again. Henry starts singing a beautiful church hymn that Stevenson recognizes: “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Stevenson leaves feeling deeply moved by Henry’s kindness, and overwhelmed with a new understanding of the meaning of hope and the human capacity for redemption.
Immediately, Stevenson is struck with a sense of connection to Henry: Henry looks like the other young black men from Stevenson’s personal life. Rather than distancing himself from Henry and viewing Henry as the “other,” Stevenson’s sense of identification with the man on death row fills him with an attitude of empathy and openness. Through their conversations, the wall between client and lawyer dissolves, and Bryan relates to Henry on the level of friendship. This makes it even harder to watch Henry be shackled again. Rather than seeing himself as a savior, Stevenson feels gratitude for Henry’s grace and warmth.
After his summer at the SPDC, Stevenson returns to his last year at Harvard with a new sense of purpose. He studies everything he can about the death penalty and the relationship between the law and systems of power, poverty and racial inequality. He rewinds to describe his upbringing in a rural, racially segregated town in Delaware. There, the history of slavery asserted itself through the presence of white supremacist symbols and ideology. His parents both worked in low-paying jobs and they always struggled financially. Stevenson's grandmother was the daughter of slaves in Virginia, and she learned their sense of fear and caution. When Stevenson was a child, his grandmother often hugged him and said, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close.” Stevenson reflects that, while law school alienated him at first, “proximity to the condemned, to people unfairly judged” returned him to a sense of home.
Even though Stevenson has not been incarcerated, he relates to the “condemned” because he sees them as victims of unfairness, and unfairness is a theme he sees in his own family’s history. By focusing on the impact of slavery and segregation on his family in order to understand himself, Stevenson implicitly argues for the importance of studying historical forces when trying to make sense of modern events and issues. Stevenson’s goal of “getting close” to the condemned runs counter to one of the most surface-level goals of the criminal justice system, which is to keep the condemned away from the rest of society.
Stevenson explains that the book’s purpose is to “get closer” to the issue of incarceration in the US. He describes the changes since the 1980’s that have resulted in an unjust and punitive criminal justice system. He cites the growing incarceration rate (which is disproportionately high for black males), the death penalty, harsh sentences for juvenile offenders and nonviolent crimes, and the criminalization of poverty, mental illness and drug addiction. He writes that the system fails at rehabilitation and instead uses labels like “felon” to permanently dehumanize the condemned. He describes the “collateral consequences” of incarceration on perpetuating inequality, such as the prevalence of false convictions and the huge increase in prison spending at the expense of other public social services.
Stevenson paints a picture of the criminal justice system that emphasizes its failure to address underlying social problems and its tendency to instead aggravate these problems, creating a continuous cycle of poverty, violence, and incarceration. By arguing that the system is failing at rehabilitation and by citing facts about the heavy cost of the prison system at the expense of other public services, Stevenson implies that the criminal justice system disproportionately allocates resources toward punishment over preventative measures.
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. He argues that, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” and that by granting mercy, we can stop perpetuating the cycle of violence. He writes that we all need mercy because “we are all implicated when we allow others to be mistreated.”
Stevenson’s argument that mistreatment of the condemned implicates everyone suggests that by dehumanizing others, people dehumanize themselves. Here, he clarifies the central storyline of the book and the central message: instead of punishment, society should focus on mercy and compassion.