Tuesday, October 21, 2014


So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
John 8:7 (King James Version)

The scene: A courthouse hallway in New Orleans

The cast:
The narrator:  A lawyer who'd just won the release of two men who've spent decades in prison for crimes they committed as children
An "older black woman" who'd been in the courtroom when one of those men  was ordered released
The story:
I thought I'd seen her each time I'd come to the courthouse in New Orleans.  I assumed that she was related or connected to on of the clients, although I didn't remember the other family members ever mentioning her.  I must have been staring because she saw me looking and waved at me, gesturing for me to come to her.
When I wasked over to her she smiled at me.  "I'm tired and I'm not going to get up, so you're going to have to lean over for me to give you a hug." She had a sweet voice that crackled.
I smiled back at her. "Well, yes, ma'am. I love hugs, thank you." She wrapped her arms around my neck.
"Sit, sit. I want to talk to you," she said.
I sat down besider her on the steps. "I've seen you here several times, are you related to Mr. Caston or Mr. Carter?" I asked.
"No, no, no, I'm not related to nobodyhere.  Not that I know of, anyway." She had a kind smile, and she looked at me intensely. "I just come here to help people. This is a place full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here."
"Well, that's really kind of you."
"No, it's what I'm supposed to do, so I do it." She looked away before locking eyes with me again. "My sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered fifteen years ago," she said, "and I loved that boy more than life itself."
I wasn't expecting that response and was instantly sobered. The woman grabbed my hand.
"I grieved and grieved and grieved. I asked the Lord why he let someone take my child like that. He was killed by some other boys. I came to this courtroom for the first time for their trials and sat in there and cried every day for nearly two weeks. None of it made any sense. Those boys were found guilty for killing my grandson, and the judge sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me fell better but it actually made me feel worse."
She continued, "I sat in the courtroom after they were sentenced and just cried and cried. A lady came over to me and gave me a hug and let me lean on her.  She asked me if the boys who got sentenced were my children, and I told her no. I told her the boy they killed was my child." She hesitated. "I think she sat with me for almost two hours. For well over an hour, we didn't neither one of say a word. It felt good to finally have someone to lean on at that trial, and I've never gorgotten that woman. I fon't know who she was, but she made a difference."
"I'm so sorry about your grandson," I murmured. It was all I could think of to say.
"Well, you never fully recover, but you carry on, you carry on.  I didn't know what to do with myself after those trials, so about a year later I started coming down here. I don't really know why. I guess I just felt like maybe I could be someone, you know, that somebody hurting could lean on." She looped her arm with mine.
I smiled at her. "That's really wonderful."
"It has been wonderful. What's your name again"
"It's Bryan."
"It has been wonderful, Bryan. When I first came, I'd look for people who had lost someone to murder or some violent crime. Then it got to the point wheere some of the ones grieving the most were the ones whose children or parents were on trial, so I just stared letting anybody lean on me who needed it. All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they're not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don't care. I don't know, it's a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.

Bryan is Bryan Stevenson, graduate of Harvard Law School, founder and Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Professor of Law at NYU, arguer of cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, grantee of seeral honorary degrees, winner of a MacArthur Foundation genius award, recipient of the Olaf Palme Prize, America's Nelson Mandela. I could go on.  

But no need.  Because, see, Bryan Stevenson isn't measured by credentials, honors, and awards suitable for listing on a resume. (Though he's got enough of them to fill a small mansion.)  He's measured by the dreams - and the accomplishments.

And so Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, his memoir/manifesto due to be released today, is filled with stories.  There are stories about the poor and the desperate.  Stories about race and poverty and a legal system where it is too often better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.  There are stories about children sentenced to be executed.  About children sentenced to LWOP, life without parole, death in prison.  

There are last minute struggles to stave off the executioner, struggles too often failed.  And there are the successes, almost always bittersweet.

The thing is, they're stories about real people.  

There's Joshua Carter.  He was 16 when he was convicted of a rape and sentenced to be executed.   That was 1963.  In 1965, the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned his conviction because of the brutality of the beating police inflicted on him to get him to confess.  He was resentenced to death in prison.  In his own way, and in the limited ways that prison allowed, he thrived.  He became a model prisoner.  He became a trustee.  And, oh yeah. Because they didn't give him the medical treatment he needed, he became blind.  But after nearly 50 years, and after Stevenson convinced the Supreme Court that LWOP sentences for juveniles who didn't kill are unconstitutional, he was released.   

There's Marsha Colbey who was sentenced to LWOP for the murder of her child - who was stillborn.  (Yes, that's right, the child wasn't murdered at all, was never actually alive.)  At the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama she met other women who were, similarly, serving life sentences for murdering their stillborn babies.  If she was not alone in that, she was also not alone in dealing with the conditions of confinement at Tutwiler.  

Desperately overcrowded, the women at Tutwiler are crammed into spaces without any meaningful sorting.  The seriously mentally ill are mixed into dorm rooms where "Marsha could never quite get used to hearing women screaming and hollering inexplicably throughout the night."  Then there were the prison guards who harassed, assaulted, and raped the women with virtual impunity.  Colbey became an advocate for the young women.  When EJI finally won her release, they gave her an award.
I got help that most women can't get.  It's what bothers me the most now, knowing that they are still there and I'm home. I hope we can do more to help more people.
As the audience applauded, she cried. 

And it is, most tellingly, the story of Walter Mcmillian.  Convicted on trumped up evidence of a murder he didn't commit.  Stevenson represented him for years, through unsuccessful appeal after unsuccessful appeal.  Until finally.  The tale is by turns hopeful and tragic.  The actions of the county sheriff, the prosecutor, and the courts altogether outrageous.  (And the subject of a powerful book by journalist Pete Earley, Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town.)

After Stevenson finally won Mcmillian's release, he spent years fighting to get him compensation.  Which he was finally ordered.  Until the U.S. Supreme Court said no.  Oh, sure.  If the county Sheriff was a "policymaker" for the county, Mcmillian could recover.  But the Court said (5-4 vote, naturally) that the Sheriff is a policymaker for the state.  And Mcmillian couldn't sue the state.

The story of Walter Mcmillian is by turns heartbreaking and heartwarming.  And it's the narrative core of Just Mercy, the focus of every other chapter.  In between are the other stories, including Stevenson's own (told with a remarkable amount of modesty, I should add).

I've had the pleasure more than once of hearing Bryan Stevenson speak at conferences.  He is inspiring for what he's done, his work to reform the criminal justice system, to end mass incarceration, to free the innocent, to fight the death penalty, to fight against death in prison sentences - especially for juveniles, to remedy prison conditions, to tackle issues of race and class.
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, 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 appreciate that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and -- perhaps -- we all need some measure of unmerited grace.
Just Mercy tells that story.  It points a way, shows that it's possible to make a difference, to be a stonecatcher.

I'm grateful to the publisher for making a prepublication copy of Just Mercy available to me for this review.

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