Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a memoir from lawyer Bryan Stevenson about his work fighting against the death penalty and mass incarceration in Alabama. A couple months ago the book got turned into a Hollywood film featuring Michael B Jordan (which I haven’t watched). There’s also an HBO documentary about Stevenson (which I did just watch), and the TED talk that brought Stevenson’s work to the mainstream for many in the tech community a few years ago.

I found his memoir incredibly inspirational. And of course sad and infuriating at the same time. Stevenson details numerous instances of injustice; some of which are never rectified prior to the alleged criminals’ execution. Some injustices are innocent men dying (or about to die, were it not for Stevenson’s intervention) for crimes they did not commit. Others are guilty men who were subject to excessive punishment (e.g. the death penalty) or suffered from a failure of due process that is inhumane.

Separate from the stories of specific stories of justice denied, Stevenson argues for proper historical understanding of the current state of affairs in the American justice system. He starts with the settlers’ genocide of Native Americans –> slavery –> lynching –> the mass incarceration of today. It’s all connected. The inequities in today’s justice system find their roots in racial discrimination of the deepest sort dating back centuries. I was rather persuaded by his argument that truth & reconciliation needs to occur in America about the Civil War and slavery and Jim Crow in the same way that other countries have reconked with grand scale injustices, e.g. South Africa, Rwanda, Germany, etc. As Stevenson says, you have to first deal with the truth, then address reconciliation.

Of my Kindle highlights, here’s one paragraph: “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”

Stevenson as a human is something to behold. The passion, the relentless, the desire to serve a purpose larger than self. Bryan has never married or had children. There are no close personal friends who receive routine mention in the memoir. He doesn’t appear to have any hobbies outside of work and playing the piano. He is consumed by his mission and it’s a very admirable mission at that. We owe people like Stevenson a debt of gratitude for sacrificing so much for the greater good. I frequently ask myself, when I read memoirs or biographies about men and women of this disposition (Lyndon Johnson comes to mind), whether I could ever see myself so subsuming my own desires and personal needs in service of any sort of mission, be it a noble one such as Stevenson’s or a purely selfish one. I usually conclude I cannot. The single mindedness and complete subjugation of the individual to the mission — the dissolution of the ego, if you will, but not in the Buddhist sense of that phrase — is something I don’t see in my past, present, or future. But who knows. There’s a purity to life purpose that’s appealing. There’s no question as to how to spend your time when you wake up in the morning. You go and do the work, day after day after day.

3 comments on “Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  • Greatness often requires a level of focus and obsession that aren’t compatible with a conventionally happy life. To the likes of you and me, it seems a hard choice.

    Yet I suspect that if you spoke with Bryan Stevenson (or any other iconic figure of this kind; Paul Farmer comes to mind) they would probably tell you that it was hardly a choice at all. Given the importance of the work, they rarely if ever considered the alternative.

    We like to behave as though human behavior was a tabula rasa where individual choice both determines outcomes, and should be judged worthy of praise or deserving of blame. I believe that are actions should be evaluated, but that we need to understand that much of our behavior is driven by instincts and patterns beyond our control.

    I find it easy to do certain things like flossing or physical therapy exercises that others can’t seem to do. That doesn’t mean I made tougher choices, or that I’m better than other people. It just means that my particular set of drives makes those easy choices for me.

    • Chris’ third paragraph aligns with how I’ve been thinking about many things more recently. In Sapiens, Harari discusses how in Neoliberal societies we’ve come to accept competition and meritocracy as codified truths, but there’s a lot more that’s out of our control and big decisions tend to make themselves.

      Reminds me of this New Yorker piece from about a year ago:

      The question is how much influence our choices do have.

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