Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Have you ever read a book that has changed the way you view the world?  Just Mercy was that book for me.  Bryan Stevenson has spent his life helping those that have been wrongly condemned.

Did you know that “over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population?”  Did you know that 25 percent of inmates are veterans?  Did you know that there were children sentenced to life in prison for non-lethal crimes at the age of 13?  Did you know that 167 people that were on death row have been exonerated since 1973 in the United States?  I did not know any of this before reading Just Mercy. It was an eye-opening book that taught me a lot about the prison system and execution in the United States.  Even more than the facts and figures, Bryan Stevenson was able to use the personal stories of those that he has worked with through the years to give a face to the people behind bars.  These stories still haunt me a week after finishing this book.

The main story of Just Mercy is how Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice, to help defend the wrongly convicted, the poor, and the vulnerable that have become trapped in the criminal justice system.  Walter McMillian was one of Stevenson’s first cases.  He was condemned for a murder he did not commit, and Stevenson has to work against the system to try to get just for Walter, his family, and his community.  I will admit I was shocked that you could be so innocent with an alibi and no prior convictions and that false testimony could put you on death row.  The fact that it was so hard to get Walter back off death row was very disturbing and made me question again why we have the death penalty in America.

I admire Bryan Stevenson.  Instead of taking a high paying corporate job, he went after his passion to help people.  The way he tells his story is down to earth and full of compassion.  It made me really sad reading this how happy people were to see Bryan when he visited them in jail.  He was the one person that really listened to so many forgotten people.  People want justice and mercy and he was able to bring it to a lot of people. 

As a side note, I really liked the To Kill a Mockingbird references in this book.  It was highly ironic that a community that was so proud of being where To Kill a Mockingbird took place railroaded a black man, Walter McMillian, with false testimony to a death sentence.

I also watched the movie Just Mercy on Amazon with my family.  It was an excellent movie.  It focused on the Walter McMillian case and not the rest of the stories that Stevenson told in this book.  The book covered a lot of issues including mothers that are put in jail for “killing” babies that were born dead, children that are victimized as they are tried as adults and put in the general population.  The book also talked about how being tough on crime often results in sentences that are too harsh for the crimes, especially for the poor.  The rich who can afford good lawyers are able to plea deal and get out of sentences that the poor could spend a lifetime in prison over.  The system is not fair for all. Even after a citizen pays for their crime, when they get out of jail, there are so many restrictions they are not able to be a fully functioning citizen of the United States again.  That is a crime in itself.  I also watched the documentary “13th” on Netflix and Bryan Stevenson is one of the people interviewed about the criminal justice system in America.  It was also eye opening and I highly recommend it.

Favorite Quotes:
I had too many favorite quotes in this book so I will try to narrow it down.

“This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.  It is about how easily we condemn people in this county and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.”

“The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.  We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.  An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, and a nation.  Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.  The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

“For them, the darkness brought a familiar unease, an uncertainty weighted with the wary, lingering fear as old as the settlement of the country itself; discomfort too longstanding and constant to merit discussion but too burdensome to ever forget.”

“The bad things that happen to use don’t define us.”

“Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

“Constantly being suspected, accused, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by a people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”

“Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

Overall, Just Mercy is a book that every American should read.  Stevenson is able to give a voice to those that desperately need one that are trapped within our legal system.  It also gives a great look at why there is so much anger in our country right now with how different groups (black, mentally disabled, poor, etc.) are treated different within our justice system.  I read this book quickly and I cannot stop thinking about it.  It is a great book for a book club or a school to discuss social justice issues.

Book Source:  Purchased from


  1. Laura,
    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful, thorough review. This book sounds excellent. I watched the movie version recently, which was very moving.

  2. Sounds like a powerful book, and I can see how it can be a life changer. We as a society take for granted the way our system of justice, or injustice, as evolved, without questioning whether there is another, better way.

    Great review - I will put this on my non-fiction reading list.

  3. I'm reading this one right now. I've to take breaks off and on because it's just so disheartening. A lot of those quotes are the ones I've been highlighting as well. I think knowledge is power and using that power is how we can affect change. Thanks for your review!