At the heart of Stevenson’s book is the idea that everyone is capable of making mistakes, even terrible mistakes, and that, at one time or another, everyone will need to be granted mercy. Harsh punishments, in Stevenson’s eyes, perpetuate violence rather than deter it: for Stevenson, giving and receiving unexpected and undeserved mercy is the only way to break the escalating cycles of violence, punishment, and hatred that characterize the criminal justice system.
Stevenson argues that achieving a more just society and fostering an ethic of mercy requires individuals from all sides to become more empathetic. Prejudice and injustice flourish when individuals can be condemned as “other” or “criminal,” a designation that creates a gulf between “us” and “them.” In order to bridge that gulf, Stevenson invites readers to hear and understand the personal stories of inmates. He contends that looking at people’s lives and experiences “up close” is a prerequisite for the kind of empathy that can lead to mercy.
Part of looking “up close” at people affected by the criminal justice system involves, for Stevenson, presenting a more holistic and humane story of their crimes, alleged or real. For example, Ashley Jones was sentenced to life without parole as a teenager for a murder that she did commit. However, the appropriateness of her sentence seems more ambiguous when her whole story is told: she murdered a relative while trying to escape from her abusive home. Stevenson uses several similar stories to illustrate that people who commit crimes often come from traumatic and violent backgrounds, and he believes that they deserve to have their actions understood through the lens of their formative experiences of suffering. Furthermore, Stevenson argues that time, reflection and new experiences can teach a person new views and habits, which can lead to rehabilitation. Many of the people Stevenson profiles, particularly those convicted as juveniles, have developed nuanced and positive views on violence and morality. By describing the kindness, wisdom, and achievement that he has witnessed in his clients, Stevenson makes the case that “criminals” should be given the opportunity to reform.
Central to the book is the idea (elaborated in the Systemic Power, Oppression, and Dehumanization theme) that all Americans—even those with no personal contact with crime or the judicial system—are implicated in abuses perpetrated by the justice system, because the justice system claims to operate in the name of protecting and preserving American society. Propping up such a system, actively or passively, is dehumanizing to the accused and the accusers, and Stevenson argues that one way to preserve humanity in the face of injustice is to extend forgiveness and mercy.
Stevenson makes the notion of mercy personal through a story from his own childhood. Once, Stevenson’s mother overheard him mocking a boy with a speech impediment, and she forced Stevenson to apologize and tell the boy that he loved him. Stevenson did as he was told, and the boy hugged Stevenson and told him that he loved him, too. Stevenson was moved by this act of mercy because he knew he didn’t deserve it, and it was the unexpected kindness of the boy’s act that startled Stevenson into reforming his own cruel behavior, not his mother’s scolding. Stevenson also writes about Ms. Baigre, the woman that fourteen-year-old Ian Manuel was in prison for injuring. Ian reached out to Ms. Baigre to apologize after he was incarcerated. She not only forgave him, but she also testified in support of his defense, remained his friend while he was in prison, and helped to reverse his life sentence. Through this and other stories of forgiveness, Stevenson praises those who forgive the accused instead of seeking harsher punishments for them.
In a church meeting, Stevenson once described his work and the work of others who help prisoners as “stonecatching.” To explain this phrase, he recounted the bible passage in which Jesus stops an angry mob from stoning a woman to death for adultery by saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” For Stevenson, “stonecatching” means stopping people from condemning others by asking them to reconsider the complexity of their own humanity. Stevenson suggests that because everyone has hurt others and everyone has been hurt, there is nothing innate that sets “criminals” apart from the rest of society. The difference, Stevenson suggests, is that some people have to pay a greater price for their mistakes. Practicing empathy and mercy, then, is the way to break the cycles of cruelty, violence, and punishment that are ripping society apart.
Empathy, Mercy, and Humanization ThemeTracker
Empathy, Mercy, and Humanization Quotes in Just Mercy
Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction […]
Lord lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Heaven’s tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
I sat down, completely stunned. Henry’s voice was filled with desire. I experienced his song as a precious gift.
You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
It was sad like few other hymns I’d heard. I don’t know why exactly, but I started to hum it as I saw more uniformed officers entering the vestibule outside the visitation room. It seemed like something that might help […] After a few minutes, the family joined me. I went over to Herbert’s wife as she held him tightly, sobbing softly. I whispered to her, “We have to let him go.” Herbert saw the officers lining up outside, and he pulled away from her slowly and told me to take her out of the room.
We’ve been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But 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.
Imagine teardrops left uncried
From pain trapped inside
Waiting to escape
Through the windows of your eyes
“Why won’t you let us out?”
The tears question the conscience
“Relinquish your fears and doubts
and heal yourself in the process.”
The conscience told the tears
“I knew you really wanted me to cry
but if I release you from bondage
In gaining your freedom, you die.”
The tears gave it some though
Before giving the conscience an answer
“If crying brings you to triumph
Then dying’s not such a disaster.”
But to be real, I want to show the world I’m alive! I want to look at those photos and feel alive! It would really help with my pain. I felt joyful today during the photo shoot. I wanted it to never end. Every time you all visit and leave, I feel saddened. But I capture and cherish those moments in time, replaying them in my mind’s eye, feeling grateful for human interaction and contact. But today, just the simple handshakes we shared was a welcome addition to my sensory deprived life.
I argued to the judge that not taking Avery’s mental health issues into consideration at trial was as cruel as saying to someone who has lost his legs, “You must climb these stairs with no assistance, and if you don’t your just lazy.” Or to say to someone who was blind, “You should get across this busy interstate highway, unaided, or you’re just cowardly.”
Walter’s sense of humor hadn’t failed him despite his six years on death row. And this case had given him lots of fodder. We would often talk about situations and people connected to the case that, for all the damage they had caused, had still made us laugh at their absurdity. But the laughter today felt very different. It was the laughter of liberation.
Knitted together as they were, a horrible day for one woman would inevitably become a horrible day for everyone. The only consolation in such an arrangement was that joys were shared as well. A grant of parole, the arrival of a hoped-for letter, a visit from a long absent family member would lift everyone’s spirits.
He became uncharacteristically emotional. “They put me on death row for six years! They threatened me for six years. They tortured me with the promise of execution for six years. I lost my job. I lost my life. I lost my reputation. I lost my – I lost my dignity.”
When he talked about his own act of violence, he seemed deeply confused about how it was possible he could have done something so destructive. Most of the juvenile lifer cases we handled involved clients who shared Evan’s confusion about their adolescent behavior. Many had matured into adults who were much more thoughtful and reflective; they were now capable of making responsible and appropriate decisions.
When these basic deficits that burden all children are combined with the environments that some poor children experience—environments marked by abuse, violence, dysfunction, neglect and the absence of loving caretaker— adolescence can leave kids vulnerable to the sort of extremely poor decision making that results in tragic violence.
I watched Joe, who laughed like a little boy, but I saw the lines in his face and even the emergence of a few prematurely grey hairs on his head. I realized even while I laughed, that his unhappy childhood had been followed by unhappy, imprisoned teenage years followed by unhappy incarceration through young adulthood. All of the sudden, it occurred to me what a miracle it was that he could still laugh.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness, even if our brokenness is not equivalent […] Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, foreswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.
“I’ve been singing sad songs my whole life. Had to. When you catch stones, even happy songs can make you sad.” She paused and grew silent. I heard her chuckle before she continued. “But you keep singing. Your songs will make you strong. They might even make you happy.”