Just Mercy is Bryan Stevenson’s account of his decades-long career as a legal advocate for marginalized people who have been either falsely convicted or harshly sentenced. Though the book contains profiles of many different people, the central storyline is that of the relationship between Stevenson, the organization he founded (the Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI), and Walter McMillian, a black man wrongfully accused of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama in the late 1980’s. Throughout the book, Stevenson provides historical context, as well as his own moral and philosophical reflections on the American criminal justice and prison systems. He ultimately argues that society should choose empathy and mercy over condemnation and punishment.
Born to a poor black family in rural Delaware, Stevenson grew up questioning the racial and economic inequality that he witnessed in his community. The story of Stevenson’s career begins when, while attending Harvard Law School, he interns with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). After meeting and befriending Henry, a death row inmate, Stevenson recognizes his passion for prison justice and for fighting against the death penalty. He moves to Atlanta to work for the SPDC, and he eventually relocates to Montgomery, Alabama to found EJI.
In Alabama, Stevenson represents many death row inmates, though the book focuses on the case of Walter McMillian. A successful black businessman from a poor community in Monroeville, Walter lost his reputation after his affair with Karen Kelly, a white woman. At the same time, the murder of a beloved local white woman, Ronda Morrison, rattled the town. Ralph Myers, a mentally unstable white man involved in criminal activity with Karen Kelly, arbitrarily accused “Karen’s black boyfriend” of murdering Ronda. The openly racist local sheriff, with the help of the District Attorney and several investigators, pursued Walter’s conviction. Together, they suppressed evidence, bribed witnesses into false testimony, and forced Myers to testify even after he tried to recant. Walter was convicted of murder by Judge Robert E. Lee Key and sentenced to death, which left his wife Minnie and his five children on their own.
While on death row, Walter becomes connected with EJI and Stevenson decides to take on the case. Over the course of a few years, Stevenson and his associates pursue a retrial, a direct appeal, and a postconviction appeal on Walter’s behalf. Walter’s family and the rural black community in Monroeville actively support him and collectively feel the suffering of his wrongful conviction and sentence. As Stevenson gets to know the community and uncovers new evidence in Walter’s case, he uncovers a web of racial discrimination, political corruption, and a long history of suffering.
Eventually, a remorseful and reformed Myers contacts EJI and recants his testimony. EJI discovers proof of the bribery and illegal activity used by the State to secure Walter’s conviction. The deeper EJI gets, the angrier powerful officials and the white community become. EJI receives several bomb threats, but they persist.
Following national media coverage of the case, new District Attorney Tom Chapman begins to doubt the integrity of the State’s conviction and he launches his own investigation. The new state investigation confirms EJI’s claims that Walter is innocent. EJI ultimately motions for the state to drop all charges against Walter. The motion is approved and Walter is released after six years on death row.
EJI helps Walter to reenter society. Despite his optimism, Walter isn’t the same. He and his wife get separated, and he eventually develops anxiety and dementia related to trauma he experienced on death row. Walter and Stevenson remain friends until Walter’s death. At his funeral, Stevenson gives a speech about all the lessons Walter taught him about resilience, hope, dignity and forgiveness.
Interspersed between segments of Walter’s story, Stevenson also tells the stories of many other individuals treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. EJI takes on the cases of several juveniles sentenced to life in prison for homicide and non-homicide crimes, including Trina Garrett, Antonio Núñez, Ian Manuel, Joe Sullivan, Evan Miller and Ashley Jones. Stevenson describes how each of these children suffered different forms of trauma, abuse, or neglect prior to their crimes. He also illustrates how easily juvenile offenders are abused within the prison system. He makes the case that juvenile offenders deserve special mercy and compassion given their backgrounds (which are often troubled), immature brain development, and capacity for change and redemption. EJI ultimately wins two landmark Supreme Court cases banning life sentences for juvenile offenders.
Stevenson writes that EJI has represented low-income mothers falsely accused of murdering their children, such as Marsha Colbey. He illustrates how media sensationalism around “killer moms” has influenced the unreasonable criminalization of poor, drug-addicted and mentally ill mothers. He also argues that the criminal justice system is unfair toward the mentally ill and disabled. He illustrates his argument with the stories of Herbert Richardson and Jimmy Dill, two mentally ill men that EJI unsuccessfully represented during late stages of their cases. Stevenson tells the stories of both men’s executions and the profound, heartbreaking impact that their deaths had on him.
Throughout the book, Stevenson writes about the histories of different marginalized groups. He describes the racial history of the United States, from slavery through Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the modern era. He argues that efforts to oppress and dominate black people have not ended, but have endured through new institutions and social practices. He argues that mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor people and minorities, is the latest incarnation of systemic racial and economic violence.
Throughout the book, Stevenson describes his own journey by showing how the relationships he has built and cases he has fought have altered his understanding of kindness, hope, justice and mercy. The climax of the story occurs shortly after Walter is diagnosed with advancing dementia, on the night that Jimmy Dill is executed. Completely emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed by the persistence of suffering and injustice, Stevenson considers quitting. He remembers the words of Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr, two veterans of civil rights who’d befriended and encouraged him years ago. Rosa Parks told him his work would make him “tired, tired, tired” and Johnnie Carr explained that was why he had to be “brave, brave, brave.” Stevenson goes home that night, determined to continue his work.