Just Mercy: The Importance of the Equality in Justice
I never thought I would sympathize with her murderer. I never thought I would feel bad for the man who made our family suffer so much. My grandfather was only 10 years old when his mother was shot during an armed robbery of their little grocery store in downtown Salt Lake. Her killer was a 2-time escaped convict from California by the name of William E Clark. We rarely talk about him. We fondly honor the memory of my great-grandmother Ella May; we tell cautionary tales about being cooperative during robberies. We don’t think about what happened to Clark. That is until I read Just Mercy. In this award-winning book, Bryan Stevenson illuminates the side of the story I never considered. Using ample stories mingled with facts, he informs the unaware American about the flaws and injustices within the American criminal justice system. As a defense attorney, Stevenson has been trying for years to fight these problems and help people like Clark. Through his use of emotional narratives, direct language, and an urgent tone, he compels the unaware American to feel sympathy and desire mercy for the shunned, condemned, and outcasted members of the human family. Stevenson fills his book with many emotionally charged narratives to show the humanity of the criminals. One of the stories he refers to is that of Herbert Richardson. Stevenson describes his traumatic past and the accident that lead to the death of a young girl. Herbert ‘had no intention to kill’ her, and under state law, should not have been eligible for the death penalty. Despite this, the prosecutor argued that he “deserved no mercy” and after a short trial, he was sentenced to die (Stevenson 77).
Those who read this narrative are stunned to silence that such a sentence could have been given. Because Stevenson described the entire background of Herbert’s life, we are able to understand more than the court ever did. They saw an evil and violent man, but Stevenson paints him with much more depth. We see a misguided, but caring, veteran who didn’t deserve the punishment he received. Seeing the bigger picture through these narratives, the audience begins to recognize the humanity within each criminal and the injustice of each trial. When I read it, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between between Herbert’s trial and William Clark’s. While Clark was robbing the store, a customer began wrestling with him and the gun went off. He denied shooting with the intent to kill, but, like Herbert, he was unable to afford a good lawyer. The prosecutor argued that he was “not entitled to mercy.” After just 25 minutes, the jury decided on the death penalty. I used to think this was a fair sentence, but Stevenson’s narratives have led me to consider the larger picture. His writing inspired me to feel sympathy for Herbert, and that sympathy was transferred to Clark as well. Suddenly I found myself feeling that his sentence wasn’t what his crime warranted. Because of Stevenson’s effective use of narratives, I began to mourn the lack of mercy in America’s courtrooms.
Throughout the book, Stevenson incorporates heavy and pointed diction to unmask the so-called “justice” in the land of the “free.” Many Americans are unaware of what actually happens behind the high barbed-wire walls of our prisons. We laugh at the descriptions given by ‘Prison Mike’ and then move on with our lives. But Stevenson gives true and detailed accounts of the horrible mistreatment. I could hardly bring myself to read about the rapes or abuse suffered by incarcerated women and children. He also describes several cases of people not receiving the ‘medical care [they] needed’ (Stevenson 304). Again, I thought about Clark. He died of tuberculosis before ever making it to his execution date. His attorney actually filed a plea for a new trial, but Clark died while the plea was still pending. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he had received the medical care he needed. What would’ve happened if we treated the condemned with more humanity? Using direct language, Stevenson addresses topics and issues that make people uncomfortable. He pulls America’s skeletons out of our closets and makes us address the issues we’ve been trying to hide under the rug. He doesn’t sugar coat any of it. Stevenson forces us to acknowledge the problems in our prisons. At first the reader is stunned, then outraged at the inhumanity of it all. We begin to see the need for programs like the Equal Justice Initiative and our loyalty to Stevenson and his cause deepens. Not wanting to feel the guilt and shame of being the worst country in the world, we feel a desire to make changes in our treatment of criminals.
Stevenson pushes this desire to action by implementing an urgent tone throughout his writing. He is able to create this tone by the pace of his writing and his frequent referral to the number of prisoners facing death. He points out that the concern isn’t just for those on death row, but that ‘hundreds of prisoners every year’ die because of the poor condition in which they are forced to live (Stevenson 37). Page after page is full of more statistics and facts firing one after the other. This makes the audience realize the urgency of the situation. Stevenson is begging us to do something, and he wants us to do something now, before anymore people have to die. This strategy is especially effective because it is literally a matter of life and death. Nothing wakes people up more than an immediate threat. Combining this tone with the previously discussed effects of his use of narratives and direct language, Stevenson not only arouses feelings of pity but also guilt, shame, outrage, sympathy, and a strong desire to fix our criminal justice system.
Bryan Stevenson never knew William Clark. He has never met me or any member of my family. He doesn’t know anything about our situation. Yet he was able to affect me personally through his masterpiece, Just Mercy. Through his use of emotional narratives, direct language, and an urgent tone, he made it easy to sympathize for the unfortunate people whose stories he tells. But those few names aren’t a comprehensive list of the condemned who deserve mercy. Stevenson argues that “we all need mercy” (Stevenson 18). I began feeling conflicted. Could I still honor my family while wishing Clark had been treated better? After hearing the judge declare the sentence, my great-grandfather Frank said, “I am not bitter, but the verdict was just. Our young ones, the smallest is only four years old, are those who will suffer far more than this man.” This is what I grew up believing; that perhaps the death penalty wasn’t punishment enough compared to all of the suffering this man would put my young grandfather through, but Stevenson has made me begin to doubt. By the time I finished reading Just Mercy, I was actually convinced. I suppose we all need mercy – even William E Clark. Sadly, it is too late for him and thousands of others like him, but it isn’t too late to join Bryan Stevenson’s fight to save thousands of others.
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