Book Summary: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
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In Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a book by Bryan Stevenson, readers are taken along on an emotional rollercoaster while following the stories of Alabama death row inmates and their struggle to survive. Bryan Stevenson, a SPDC lawyer and activist, narrates his past of representing wrongly charged death row inmates in the Alabama justice system and his efforts to fight for their equality. In his book, Stevenson entices readers with his compassionate personality and knowledge of the legal systems as he guides us into the real world of those placed on death row.
Throughout the book, the reader meets many characters of all races, genders and ages such as, Herbert Richardson, Avery Jenkins, Marsha Colbey and Charlie all of which are in very different situations. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a must read for anyone wanting to experience the emotion of real life behind bars and the true face of discrimination.
Some of the strongest stories were those who did not get the chance to beat their death row sentence. A veteran and a sufferer of mental illness is placed on death row after a lawyer failed to mention his war history and mental health issues to the court and is convicted for the murder of his past lover’s niece after placing a bomb on their porch. Herbert Richardson is introduced into Stevenson’s book in chapter four, “”The Old Rugged Cross””, and touches the hearts of readers with his search for forgiveness in his last final days. “”When Herbert Richardson received word in July that his execution was scheduled for August 18, he called me collect from death row: ‘Mr. Stevenson, this is Herbert Richardson, and I’ve just received notice that the state plans to execute me on August 18. I need your help. You can’t just say no. I know you’re helping some of the guys and y’all are opening the an office, so please help me,”” (Stevenson 72). Calling on Stevenson’s help just thirty days before his execution date, Richardson opens the readers eyes to the urgency and terror these inmates face while counting down the days to their demise. Even with his plate already full, Stevensons caring personality sneaks through as he chooses to help Richardson in his time of need. Stevenson states, “”I was increasingly becoming convinced that Herbert was facing execution because he had been an easy target. He was unaided and easily condemned by a system that was inattentive to the precise legal requirements of capital punishment. I was deeply distressed that, had he gotten the right help at the right time, Herbert would not be on death row,”” (Stevenson 79). However, despite his best efforts, Stevenson’s appeal to the court is denied and Richardson’s date creeps closer. On the day of his execution, Richardson shocks readers with how calm and prepared he is for what is about to come as he says goodbye to his family and thanks Stevenson for all the work he had done. Reaching back to the name of the chapter, the song “”The Old Rugged Cross”” plays as Stevenson and Richardson’s family makes their painful goodbyes to Richardson as he is executed.
Not all the stories in Stevenson’s books have sad endings, some of them have heartwarming moments of change that inspire the reader throughout the story. Avery Jenkins, a man who grew up jumping from foster home to foster home do to neglect and abuse, burdened with mental illness brought on from his past. After their meetings, Stevenson comments on Avery’s condition, “”His prison records revealed that he often experienced psychotic episodes in which he would scream for hours. He was generally kind and gentle in our meetings, but he was clearly ill,”” (Stevenson 197). A young man who developed mental illness and psychosis through childhood trauma and substance abuse in his teens, Avery is introduced in chapter ten, “”Mitigation””, after his sentencing for murdering a man he believed was a demon. Upon his first meet with Avery, Stevenson notices a truck decorated with confederate stickers and is then stripped searched by a crude and seemingly racist guard who also later refuses to let Stevenson bring in a milkshake for Avery before entering. Avery’s lack of emotional development and maturity is seen in the childlike way he pesters Stevenson to bring him a milkshake instead of talking about the severity of his case and even when denied by the officers he continues to ask for one. During Avery’s hearing it is brought to the attention of the court the offenses brought on Avery by his foster parents, things such as sexual, physical and emotional abuse. After his hearing, Stevenson happens to run into the same heartless guard who once treated Stevenson as a second class citizen, but now treats him as any other person. The guard informs Stevenson that he related to Avery’s past, but that he had never fully dealt with his feelings on the subject, spoken by the guard after the court hearing “”It was kind of difficult for me to be in that courtroom to hear what y’all was talking about. I came up in foster care, you know, I came up in foster care too.’ His face softened, ‘Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me. They moved me around like I wasn’t wanted nowhere. I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did,”” (Stevenson 201). The guard even went as far as to bring Avery the chocolate milkshake he had been asking for, giving the story of Avery Jenkins a heartwarming ending. This ending not only warms the hearts of the reader but it Avery’s story also gives the reader hope that not all stories have to have a bad ending.
Stevenson uses his stories to reach out to every reader and in chapter twelve, “”Mother, Mother””, the hearts of women and mothers are touched with the story of Marsha Colbey and the women of Tutwiler prison. Colbey is a pregnant woman who after losing her home to a natural disaster, struggled to make ends meet with her husband and six children. The true character of Marsha Colbey is seen in a excerpt from the book, “”She and Glen were dirt poor, but Marsha had always compensated for the things she couldn’t give her kids by giving them all of her heart. She read to them, talked to them, played with them, hugged and kissed them constantly and kept them close at all times. Against all odds, she nurtured a precious family bonded by an intense love,”” (Stevenson 229). Despite her caring demeanor and motherly instinct, Colbey loses her newborn child at birth. While mourning her stillborn child, Colbey is arrested after a neighbor reported a missing baby. A mother of six, thrown in to Tutwiler prison on murder charges for a child she lost during birth, reaches out to Stevenson is hopes of one day returning to her children. While in Tutwiler, Colbey exposes to Stevenson that women in the prison are being molested and raped, some of these cases leading to pregnancies, and their abusers are getting away with their crimes do to their positions in the justice system. Not only does Stevenson work towards justice for Colbey, he fights for the rights and fair treatment of the women of Tutwiler. The inspiring way the female inmates use each other’s stories and experiences to insight hope within each other has the effect of also inspiring the reader making them feel apart of the story. The stories of these women and their strength and struggle help inspire Stevenson’s female readers and to ignite the urge to stand up against the atrocities and unfair treatment against women.
Some of the most difficult stories are those of children who were put in situations that caused them to become incarcerated and tried as adults. One of these adolescents is Charlie, a young boy introduced in chapter 6, “”Surely Doomed””, after his grandmother reaches out to Stevenson for help. A young fourteen-year-old boy described in the book as, “”He was tiny, but he had big, beautiful eyes. He had a close haircut that was common for little boys because it required no maintenance. It made him look even younger than he was,”” (Stevenson 121). Charlie was arrested after shooting his mother’s boyfriend in the original plot to call 911 for his mother.Charged with the murder of his stepfather who was not only a loved police officer, but an abusive drunk who on the night of his death beat Charlie’s mother almost to death. Upon meeting Stevenson Charlie is silent and even after Stevenson’s kind questioning, Charlie continues to avoid Stevenson’s help. Finally after pushing for answers, Stevenson receives them in an emotional outburst full of fear and tears. Charlie admits to all of the atrocities he is facing with being so young and small in an adult prison, things such as abuse and rape. While explaining what had happened Charlie’s actions are quoted as, “”It seemed like his tears would never end. He would tire and then start again. I just decided to hold him until he stopped,”” (Stevenson 124). A case that Stevenson originally refused to take on, is one he now cannot let go of as this young boy with terror in his eyes begs him not to leave and latches onto him.
These characters are some of the few stories seen in Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and their stories alone are reason enough to why this book is impossible to put down. The stories of those on death row paired with outside commentary and inside thoughts of their lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, give the reader the true experience of what it’s like to be apart of a death row case. This book will take the reader on many emotional adventures and will even change the common beliefs held about incarcerated individuals. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this book, it will change the way you see the justice system and those inside of it.