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The novel “Just Mercy” enlightens the audience with author Bryan Stevenson’s first-hand account as a lawyer. The writer walks us through the criminal prosecution of Walter McMillian, a Black man from Alabama who was wrongly accused of Ronda Morrison’s murder. McMillian’s story serves as the central plot of the book.
Stevenson alternates between Walter’s case and his personal reflections on America’s history of racial disparity and incarceration issues. The author focuses on other vulnerable groups who have been victimized by the US criminal justice system and tells the stories of the prisoners he has assisted over the years.
The book also follows the evolution of Stevenson’s nonprofit law project, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), from focusing on death row inmates to assisting people sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Stevenson also chronicles the meteoric rise of EJI in the criminal justice reform movement.
Bryan Stevenson discovered his life’s passion as a law student in 1983 when he interned with the Georgia-based Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. His encounter with a death row prisoner propels him to embark on a journey to become a lawyer for marginalized communities.
After graduating from college, Stevenson accepts a job with the organization to represent poor prisoners who cannot afford attorneys or do not have a public defender. During his work, he comes across he meets Walter McMillian, who is on death row for murder.
Walter, a successful businessman, crosses racial lines by having an affair with a white woman in a still segregated Alabama. Soon after the affair is made public, the woman’s friend, Ralph Myers, accuses Walter of being responsible for Ronda Morrison’s unsolved murder, which has outraged the community.
Law enforcement, including a racist sheriff and district attorney, jumps on this accusation, ignoring Walter’s alibi and a lack of evidence. Instead, they actively persuade Ralph to stick to his story, even when he tries to change his mind. They coerce other false witness testimonies and actively suppress evidence, as revealed years later.
When Stevenson and the EJI team are unsuccessful in their appeal of Walter’s conviction, they conduct their own investigation and uncover new evidence. They discover witnesses who can demonstrate that the witnesses against Walter lied, as well as financial records indicating that one of these witnesses was paid to give false testimony.
Stevenson and his team also requested and were granted access to all records from Walter’s trial. Their big break, however, comes when they receive a phone call from Ralph, who now wishes to make amends. Ralph admits to lying about Walter and claims he was threatened by the local police enforcement.
Stevenson obtains a hearing for Walter at which he can present his new evidence, which includes Ralph’s testimony. His testimony is confirmed by health care workers and other inmates, in addition to the recordings of police officers threatening Ralph if he does not frame Walter.
The overseeing judge refuses to grant Walter relief, so Stevenson continues to fight for Walter’s freedom with continuous appeals. The district attorney commissions an outside investigation into the murder for which Walter was convicted, and the investigators conclude that Walter had nothing to do with the crime. Walter’s conviction is overturned six weeks later by the court. Stevenson and the State jointly file a motion to dismiss the charges, and Walter is released.
Throughout the trial, Stevenson and Walter become close friends. After his release, Stevenson assists Walter by filing a civil suit on his behalf and offering him a place to stay. Walter helps Stevenson tell his story by giving interviews and speaking at legal conferences. He is even featured in a documentary.
Stories about Stevenson’s other clients and work are interspersed with chapters chronicling Walter’s story. His closeness to these prisoners and their horrifying circumstances drives Stevenson to help more and causes him to reflect on abstract issues, such as humanity and mercy, that permeate the criminal justice system. Stevenson focuses on vulnerable people who become trapped in the system, such as mentally ill prisoners, disabled prisoners, and poor women who have stillborn babies.
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