Book Review: Just Mercy

I really love to read.

I used to read a lot.  My third grade teacher once told my parents that she was afraid I was going to fall down the steps because I was always reading while walking through the hallways.  Now with 4 kids and a full time job, I don’t get to read nearly as much as I’d like, but I still try to read whenever I can.

I read a lot of great books, but every so often I come across a book that challenges the way I think and gives me a completely different take on the world.  The last time this happened was a few years ago when I read A Hole In Our Gospel, which made me reexamine my faith and who I considered as my neighbors.  If I had never read this book I don’t know if we would have adopted internationally or if we would have gotten involved with our refugee friends.  This book quite literally changed my life.

It happened again this year when I read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  Bryan might be my new superhero.  After graduating from Harvard Law School, he took a low paying position defending prisoners on death row in the South.  What he found appalled him so much that he has devoted his life to defending those who have been wrongly convicted or sentenced too harshly.

You have to understand that compassion is not a strength of mine.  While I care deeply about people, I’m not really a “feeler”.  I don’t cry at movies, I don’t get overly excited about things, and I most definitely have never cared about prisoner’s rights.  As far as I was concerned, these were the low lifes who had made bad decisions and were now paying their just consequences.  The end.

Until I read this book.

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I was totally oblivious to America’s prison systems and the gross inequity that exists within them.  Bryan starts off with some interesting facts about how the prison system has been reformed since the early 1980s, like how in 1980 there were 41,000 people in state or federal prisons for drug offenses and now there are 500,000.  Or how some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults.  We’re the only country in the ENTIRE WORLD that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole- and we sometimes do this to kids under the age of 12.  Or how one in every 3 black male babies born in America is expected to be incarcerated. Or how we spent $6.9 billion on jails and prisons in 1980 but spend $80 billion today.  Or how one in five prisoners has a diagnosed mental illness. Or how we’re one of just 5 industrialized countries that have the death penalty, and how inaccurate that penalty can be, as scores of people have been proven innocent after they’ve been put to death for crimes they didn’t commit. The facts are shocking and endless, but what really makes this book good are the dozens of stories he shares throughout.

There are so many good stories that I find myself wanting to recount each one for you, but then you would probably  1. Stop reading and 2. Never read this book.  Since I don’t want either of those things to happen, I’ll share a short version of just one of the stories (some of these sentences are directly from the book), then wrap up with some of my thoughts.

Trina Garnett’s father was an alcoholic abuser who repeatedly punched, kicked, verbally abused, and raped Trina’s mother.  She was the youngest of 12 children born in a poor Pennsylvania town.  Trina once watched her father beat the family dog to death with a hammer and throw it out the window.  Trina learned from a young age to hide from her father when his abuse turned to the children.  Not surprisingly, she showed signs of intellectual disabilities and other troubles from a very young age.  Trina’s mother died when Trina was 10.  Her older sisters tried to take care of her, but fled when the father started sexually abusing them.  Trina eventually ran away from home, eating out of garbage cans and sleeping at parks.  One night when Trina was 14, she and a friend climbed through the window of a male friend’s house.  They lit a match to see through the dark and the house caught on fire.  Two boys died of smoke asphyxiation.  Trina insisted this happened on accident.  She was so distraught and traumatized by this that she could barely speak when the police came, and was so nonfunctional that her appointed lawyer thought she was incompetent to stand trial.  But the lawyer, who was later disbarred and jailed for unrelated criminal misconduct, never filed the appropriate motions to support an incompetency determination, and also never challenged the State’s decision to try Trina as an adult.  Her friend testified against her in exchange for the charges against her being dropped.  Trina was convicted of second degree murder.

Due to Pennsylvania law, the judge could not take her age, mental illness, poverty, the history of abuse, or the tragic circumstances surrounding the fire into consideration.  Second degree murder convictions had a mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole sentence.  At 14, she was sentenced to die in prison.  Not long after she arrived at an adult prison, a male correctional officer pulled her into a secluded area and raped her.  She became pregnant.  He was fired but not criminally prosecuted.  Trina was unprepared for child birth and delivered the baby while handcuffed to a bed.  In 2014, Trina turned 52.  She has become less functional and more mentally disabled.  She has never received any financial aid or services from the state to compensate her for being violently raped by one of it’s “correctional” officers.  She is one of nearly 500 people in Pennsylvania who have been condemned to mandatory life imprisonment without parole for crimes they were accused of committing when they were between the ages of 13 and 17.

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That really tears at the heart strings of even this non-compassionate person.  It really challenges how I think of prisoners. I think of how Trina’s entire life is wasted.  What could have happened if Trina received some assistance at a young age?  If there were resources for her mother to flee to?  If even after her rough start and the fire, she was channeled into appropriate programs that taught her life skills and regulated her mental disabilities instead of calling her a murderer and sentencing this abused baby to life in prison?

I think what really made this book impactful to me is that Trina’s story is far from the only one like it.  Mistakes happen even when you have good systems in place, so if Trina’s story had been an outlier it is just a sad story.  But over the course of the book it becomes apparent that Trina’s story is not an outlier.  Bryan reveals flawed systems that focus on convictions and sentencing as a first option rather than a last.  It reveals a system that is hungry for convictions even when the evidence isn’t there.  Bryan has uncovered stories of sheriffs paying “witnesses” to make up stories in order to convict people (in one story, this made up, paid for testimony results in putting a man on death row).  It reveals a system that, in his words, “reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them “felon”, “thief”, “murderer”- identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or the improvements they might make in their lives.”  Even after they serve their time, they find they are virtually unemployable and have few resources available to them.

It also reveals a racist system, where in one case the prison guard drove a pick up truck with a Confederate flag and a bumper sticker that said “If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have picked my own damn cotton.” This guard made Bryan (who is black) submit to a strip search before he could conduct his legal visit.  Think about that- you have a guard who is unapologetically racist guarding a prison population that is largely black.  Do you think that could affect how he treats people? In another case, Bryan was preparing in the courtroom before the trial.  The prosecuting attorney and the judge walked in, laughing, and told him he needed to go wait in the holding cell.  They assumed he was the defendant, not the attorney.  I found it especially interesting to read these racist incidents- the two above are just two of many- in light of the current climate between African Americans and police.  I have to admit that when I read stories of blacks and white police officers colliding I typically identify with the police officer.  This book really gave me a deeper understanding of why so many African Americans are upset with the current legal system, and made me realize that there is some real work to do.

Bryan’s done a lot of commendable work.  He’s dedicated his entire professional life to fighting for those who have been wrongly convicted or sentenced too harshly.  He’s won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, and argued five times before the Supreme Court- in one case, he made it illegal to sentence children to life in prison with no parole (as of 2012).  He’s executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, and he keeps in touch with people he’s freed to make sure they have the resources to begin to rebuild their lives.  He’s truly a modern day hero, and I’ll never think of defense lawyers the same again.

If you read only one book in 2016, make it this one.  You won’t regret it.

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