Stevenson’s stories detail how legal structures—which are meant to ensure that all Americans are treated fairly—can contribute to the systemic oppression of marginalized groups, such as African Americans, women, the poor, and the disabled. By favoring individuals and groups who have more power, the criminal justice system perpetuates a cycle of vulnerability, poverty, and racial inequality in the United States. Stevenson demonstrates this claim through historical research, personal anecdotes, and political analysis, and his moral reflections suggest that such abuses of the justice system dehumanize both the victims and the perpetrators of oppression.
While Stevenson discusses many of his clients’ cases in order to demonstrate the failures of the justice system, his primary case study is that of Walter McMillian. McMillian, a black man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death, faced obstacles including incompetent court-appointed lawyers, political corruption, racial prejudice and profiling, and media sensationalism. His case is used in Just Mercy to demonstrate the myriad ways in which the legal system can deliberately betray those it is meant to protect, and the fact that justice is not immune from individual corruption and cruelty.
McMillian’s case, like all the other case studies in the book, is meant to personalize the experience of discrimination and miscarriage of justice in order to help readers understand the tremendous individual suffering that results from abuses of power. Stevenson often refers to the “collateral consequences” of the penal system: McMillian not only lost years of his life from his false conviction, but he also lost his reputation, his mental and physical health, his business, and his family’s limited financial resources. The case studies in the book are also meant to demonstrate the larger forces that structure the American justice system. McMillian’s case, for example, illustrates the all-too-common phenomenon of an innocent black man being blamed for a crime against a white woman. Other case studies point out that the prisons are full of populations that American society would rather criminalize than provide resources for: the poor, the mentally ill, and victims of trauma, for example. Rather than committing collective resources to social problems or empathizing with people from marginalized groups, the justice system scapegoats people who are often victims themselves.
Furthermore, Stevenson demonstrates that this problem is not isolated to the present day. The systematic oppression enacted by the justice system has direct roots in inhumane institutions that date back to slavery. Like slavery, many legal and judicial structures have the direct or indirect result of limiting the power of African Americans and separating out poor and minority populations from whites. For example, poll taxes, which were used in the Jim Crow era to prevent African Americans from voting, have now been replaced by laws barring inmates and convicted felons (who are disproportionately black) from voting. Stevenson shows how seemingly-innocuous legal phenomena like preemptory strikes in jury selection, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, or the overburdening of court-appointed attorneys results in a system of discrimination and oppression reminiscent of the slavery and Jim Crow eras. Slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration, Stevenson argues, are transhistorical manifestations of the same phenomenon: racism.
Above all, Stevenson wants readers to understand that the abuses of the criminal justice system aren’t limited to racist judges, vindictive prosecutors, or incompetent police officers: the structure and trends of the American judicial system reflect American values and society overall, and thus all Americans are implicated in the problems that Stevenson describes in Just Mercy. When a society collectively dehumanizes certain groups and individuals, that society loses its own humanity. It’s everybody’s responsibility, whether or not they are directly involved with criminal justice, to educate themselves about the problems and work to change systemic abuses however they can.
Systemic Power, Oppression, and Dehumanization ThemeTracker
Systemic Power, Oppression, and Dehumanization Quotes in Just Mercy
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.
Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no roots.
“You see this scar on the top of my head?” He tilted his head to show me. “I got that scar in Greene County, Alabama trying to register to vote in 1964. You see this scar on the side of my head? […] I got that scar in Mississippi demanding civil rights. […] These aren’t my scars, cuts and bruises. These are my medals of honor.”
We’re going to keep all you niggers from running around with these white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile.
The next day there were articles in the press about the execution. Some state officials expressed happiness and excitement that an execution had taken place, but I knew that none of them had actually dealt with the details of killing Herbert.
I feel like they done put me on death row, too. What do we tell these children about how to stay out of harm’s way when you can be at your own house, minding your own business, surrounded by your entire family, and they still put some murder on you that you ain’t do and send you to death row?
You know they’ll try to kill you if you actually get to the bottom of everything.
They treated us like we were low-class white trash. They could not have cared less about us. […] I thought they treated victims better. I thought we had some say.
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.
In that moment, I felt something peculiar. A deep sense of recognition. I smiled now, because I knew she was saying to the room, “I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I’m here because I’m supposed to be here. I’m here because you can’t keep me away.”
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.
His story was a counter narrative to the rhetoric of fairness and reliability offered by politicians and law enforcement officials who wanted more and faster executions. Walter’s case complicated the debate in very graphic ways.
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.”
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.