Law and Society in “Just Mercy”

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Updated: Jan 16, 2020
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From talking about different types of cases involving corruption in the United States Criminal Justice system, the novel “”Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”” by Bryan Stevenson is a great novel to read. This piece of literature takes place mostly during the time where blacks were discriminated heavily, and the court system was somewhat flawed against them. It talks about the author himself, on how he spends decades dedicating himself to help those who have been falsely accused in court. He would also fight for those who were given brutal sentences as well. The main plot of the story would be about one of the defendants, Walter McMillian, who was falsely accused and sentenced to death. Just Mercy emphasizes the racism, corruption and cruelty happening throughout the American court system. I would say that the main theme in the entire novel is that the criminal Justice system tends to favor people and groups with power. The effect of that is the vulnerability that the CJ system creates against the minority groups in America.

In chapter 7 of the book, Stevenson’s direct appeal gets denied by Judge Patterson. John Patterson was a former attorney general and governor with a history of discrimination against black people. As stated in the book, Patterson was “”a fierce opponent of civil rights and racial integration”” (Stevenson, 2014, p.128), signifying his beliefs against the minority. He banned the NAACP from operating in Alabama and blocked civil rights boycotts and protests, even denying protection for the Freedom Riders’ (Stevenson, 2014, p.128). The social control (Levett, 2018a) within the state government of Alabama was very weak when it came towards blacks. Police would violently beat the crowd of protestors and people who opposed Walter would threaten others who were advocates of him with bomb threats. The actions of Patterson are an example of how the CJ system favors people with power. I believe this can have an impact on the convicted because it can drain them physically and mentally. To show you an example, Walter lost his job, his wife, and reputation while being on death row (Stevenson, 2014, p.254). He was diagnosed with dementia and started to forget the things that he had done a few hours earlier (Stevenson, 2014, p.275). It destroys the victim’s identity and his surroundings, almost as if he must start living a new life as a different person.

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In chapter 10 of the novel, the author talks about the history of the mentally ill and the disabled prisoners. He argues that they are mistreated cruelly in the prison and that they aren’t in the best of conditions to take care of themselves. Stevenson uses one of his clients as an example, George Daniel, a man who had suffered brain damage in a car accident that knocked him unconscious (Stevenson, 2014, p.189). He was observed eating his own feces and couldn’t speak in complete sentences while incarcerated (Stevenson, 2014, p.190). The guards use excessive force on them when they can’t do a simple task, like placing their hands through the bars so they can be handcuffed. Some prisoners suffer from epilepsy and seizures, which makes it hard for them to comply to the act. The author goes on to show that instead of trying to help them, the judges give harsher punishment, which makes it worse for the victims and tend to have violent tendencies. I think that mercy should be extended to the “”criminals”” in order to preserve humanity because it is an art that is starting to vanish within the system. The tenacity (Levett, 2018b) of the people back then were very anti-segregation. If someone with power within the CJ system has those views towards blacks, then it sets a dangerous motion against the disabled and mentally ill blacks in the way that how people will think of them.

In addition to that, chapter 5 illustrates another example of corrupt power within the CJ system. A man named Darnell Houston was indicted for talking to Stevenson about the statement he made against Walter a year ago. Houston talked about how one of the state’s witnesses was lying under oath against McMillian (Stevenson, 2014, p.105). This just shows that state officials will do anything within their power to keep Walter McMillian behind bars, even by breaking a few laws themselves. Judge Robert E. Lee Key also denied Stevenson’s motion of appeal, showing Key’s views on blacks and how far the corruption of power goes. I think that what the author is doing in this situation is right and just. He is attempting to do anything within the law to get Walter freed from death row, but the abuse of authority (Levett, 2018c) shown towards his clients and him is preventing him from achieving his goal. There is not much Stevenson can do without breaking the law, but to keep trying until a breakthrough happens.

Aside from that, the main problem within the book would have to be the illogical and cruel process when convicting the victim in court. I believe that the adversarial system (Levett, 2018d) at the time was flawed completely when it came to blacks. According to Jerome Frank’s “”Truth”” Theory in the book “”Before the Law: An Introduction to the Legal Process””, he has a distrust in the system because he thinks that some lawyers lack the skill or diligence to bring evidence which might not be accepted in court (Bonsignore et al., 2005). Also, he implies that judges themselves work for the government, and that can be harmful to either party if a judge sides with another government official. When Stevenson was stopped by an officer one night, the officer conducted an illegal search on his car, opening the glove compartment. The officials would not follow the due process model (Levett, 2018e), where every citizen should be protected from police harassment and law enforcement in general. Judge Ted Pearson used peremptory strikes to exclude many of the black jurors except for one (Stevenson, 2014, p.65), which is a violation of the constitution because every state within the country must guarantee same rights, privilege, and protections. The only time I would personally remove a juror from his/her post is if they are biased only, not based on their religion, gender, or race.

Overall, the CJ court system tends to favor individuals and groups that have power. In my point of view, justice is the discovery of truth through due process of the law. Sometimes, the actual truth isn’t found, and many innocent people end up serving long-term sentences due to either a lack of evidence or corruption within the legal process of the law. It upsets me that the constitution guarantees us certain rights that we are given, yet there are still circumstances where they are being violated to this day. It’s easy to find someone guilty and to lock them up in prison then finding evidence that can exonerate that person.


Stevenson, B. (2014). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau.

Levett, L. (2018). Law and Society. Lecture presented in University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

Bonsignore, J., Katsh, E., d’Errico, P., Pipkin, R., Arons, S., & Rifkin, J. (2005). Before the law: An Introduction to the Legal Process (8th ed.). Boston: CENGAGE Learning.

Law and Society in “Just Mercy” essay

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Law and Society in "Just Mercy". (2020, Jan 16). Retrieved from