Problems Presented in “Just Mercy”
In the first case presented in Just Mercy, we can already see how difficult it is for trials to be reevaluated even if they are flagrant examples of injustice. Many of the people also held extreme bias toward convicted prisoners. Before reading Just Mercy I probably would have agreed that convicted prisoners did not deserve an appeal or another trial. I did not really think about how easy it would be for an easy or vulnerable target to have an unjust ruling. The people who hold the bias not only are like me and are just ignorant toward the plight of the prisoners, but some could care less. They think that whether or not they deserve their punishment is irrelevant and to keep the system running smoothly that there needs to be as many executions as quickly as possible. This is especially since many of the unfairly convicted are some type of minority whether by race, gender, or social status. You can also see that many of the officials were aggravated by Stevenson’s attempts to rectify any of the unjust cases. This causing an interruption in what they think should be a smooth, simple process. In addition to reduce the likelihood of someone like Stevenson trying to retry a case by prompting witnesses to give a false testimony and give the defense an even more narrow ledge to stand on. Another way that trials are falsified is by allowing biased juries to serve. In many of the cases mentioned the juries have the potential to have a racial bias. This is because many lawyers would strike any of the black jurors from serving so that they would have an all or mostly white jury trying a black person. Or in Marsha’s case “numerous jurors announced they could not be impartial toward Mrs. Colby” (just mercy, 235). This shows the lack of regard for fairness in a trial. The fact that prosecution lawyers could get rid of most or all the black jurors and allow biased juries to serve was very surprising to me. Especially since they could this unchecked or stopped by anyone. Because I have never had any experience with criminal court I had the preconceived notion that trials were held fairly and there were checks in place to make sure that both sides were fair. Another thing that was surprising was the ability of false experts to testify without having to prove their qualifications. In a case like George’s case where he was reviewed by a false expert. The supposed expert had lied about his qualifications and had deemed people of sound mental state even when they clearly were not. “There are likely hundreds of other people after an evaluation by ‘Dr. Seger’ whose convictions have never been reviewed.” (191). This is just another flagrant example of a flawed justice system, it hurts some of the people who need help the most. Furthermore, even if a case is reviewed and the person deemed not guilty there is very limited support and money as reparations. In Just Mercy Stevenson explicitly states, “Most people released from prison after being proved innocent receive no money, no assistance, no counseling- nothing from the state that wrongly imprisoned them.” (244). Even after going through such an ordeal they are still denied help and any sort of reparations. These different ways that the justice system itself and the officials who help run it show that their needs to be change. There needs to be more regulations of what happens in the court room and how trials are run.
In Just Mercy nearly all the juvenile cases mentioned shocked me. The juvenile system seemed to harm the children that had to go before it, giving them harsher sentences than an adult would have to endure. The juvenile system allowed children to be tried as adults and put in adult prisons. In cases like Trina’s where she had a long and troubling history of being raped, abused, homeless, and having frequent stints in a hospital due to mental problems. She was extremely lonely and she and a friend decided to go see some boys that their mother had forbidden them from seeing her. She broke into the house and accidentally started a fire. The two boys died from suffocation from smoke. Trina was tried as an adult and put in an adult prison. Once she was there as an already damaged and traumatized child she was raped by a prison guard. She got pregnant and had her child taken from her. I felt horribly for her because she had a life full of struggle and because of her poor mental health and loneliness she made a poor choice. And in lieu of that decision the one system in place to try and protect her just destroyed her further. This is not the only case of the juvenile justice system harming the children that come into it. Another case where a little boy was put into an adult prison and raped as well. I did feel less sympathetic toward his case since he made the decision to murder his mother’s abusive boyfriend. I did however feel sympathy for the situation he was in, he had to live with someone who abused his mother frequently and there was nothing he could do. So, by the juvenile justice system allowing another broken child to be put in a situation where they would be completely vulnerable is a huge problem. The system is supposed to protect minors and even when it tries to do so it still causes harm in another way. In Ian’s case he was sentenced to life in prison for a non-fatal crime. At the beginning of this case I felt little sympathy for Ian in the fact that he made a choice to commit an armed robbery and ended up shooting her in the face. But at the end after learning he was sentenced to life in prison and put in solitary I became extremely sympathetic. He was placed in solitary because they did not want to put him into a situation where he would be around other prisoners. The idea had the right intent but ended up causing him to harm himself and have intense depression. This is because he would go days deprived of talking to another human being. He had meals given to him through a flap. This just goes to show how unjust a sentenced for life in prison without parole is for a minor. This is a problem as well as the fact that children can be sentenced to death. In Just Mercy Stevenson brings up the case of a little boy named George. He was arrested for the murder and rape of two little white girls. There was no evidence that he was the murderer. He was only convicted because he was the last person to see the girls alive. He was sentenced to death. In Just Mercy Stevenson describes him as “small even for his age five foot two, ninety-two-pound Stinney walked up to the chair with a bible in his hand. He had to sit on the book when prison staff couldn’t find the electrodes to fit his small frame.” (158). This makes George even more of a pitiable kid, not only was he terrified with no family present and falsely accused, but he was sentenced to death at fourteen years old. Therefore, I agree with Stevenson and his support for the supreme court decisions to allow parole for minors and to have the death sentence be deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
A common theme in many unjust cases is that they are poorly represented by state appointed lawyers. The lawyers generally do not prepare or research their client’s past. This is because the lawyers can generally only earn $1,000. Thus, causing most of the lawyers to nit represent their clients well. One outstanding example of poor representation is Daniel’s case where his lawyers not only did not look at his history, but they filed a civil suit against each other. His mother offered the lawyers his most recent paycheck to use as evidence of his mental illness and they cashed it. They ended up providing no defense for George Daniel and he ended up being sentenced to death. Furthermore, when state appointed lawyers fail to represent their client they leave an already disenfranchised person in an even more difficult situation. This is because the people who need the state representation are ones who cannot afford another lawyer, and that could be for a multitude of reasons. This is another situation where Trina was failed, her lawyer presented no evidence of her troubled past. She had been abused, raped, and homeless for her entire childhood. The lawyer representing her did not bring this up in court and she was given life in prison. Lastly Avery’s case was very similar to Trina’s, he had been abused and abandoned by foster home parents, his really parents had died by the time he was one. He began to abuse drugs at a young age. This was on top of the fact that he already had severe mental handicaps and brain tissue damage. Just like Trina he was convicted without having any defense that spoke to his motives. Neither Trina nor Avery meant any harm by their crime but were both convicted to the highest stature possible. Once in prison both Trina and Avery suffered from seizures and other sorts of problems and were shown no leniency even though it was clear they were both ill. By having virtually no defense it makes it so that these people are unfairly prosecuted. All in all, by lawyers not feeling that they are being paid fairly for the work and amount of preparation they needed to do causes already vulnerable people to be even more so. The lawyers spend more time fighting for the money or just do not do anything and take the money anyway. By not giving any testament to the reasoning behind their actions the lawyers are just condemning their clients to an unfavorable outcome. There needs to be either a higher wage for government hired defense lawyers or more checks on if they are doing their job in representing their clients accurately and giving them the best chance for a good outcome.
Just Mercy changed my opinion on how women are treated in the criminal and prison systems. I did not realize exactly how vulnerable women in these systems are. Stevenson explicitly says, “most women on death row are awaiting execution for a family crime involving an allegation of child abuse or domestic violence involving a male partner.” (231). This shows how women are being harshly prosecuted for more minor offenses. Another example is a woman who was sentenced to ten years in prison for overdrawing her bank account so she could buy toys for her children. Another phenomenon that causes problems for many women is the “bad moms” (233). Many people were trying to find and prosecute what they deemed to be “bad moms”. This made it so women who had stillborn babies had their neighbors poking around in their private life and causing women to be at risk of being arrested. This is because even when women would have stillborn babies there was a chance that a false expert would claim that they were not stillborn. This would cause these women to be prosecuted on murder charges because their child is under 14. I think that this trend is awful. The idea is that they are helping children in bad situations but instead what they are doing is taking a mother away from any other children she has and prosecuting her, many times falsely. By removing a mother from her children, the children are left further unprotected. If there is no father to take care of them the children could end up in more dangerous situations or foster care. This is also in addition to the fact that women could be sent to prison for using drugs or drinking during a pregnancy. This is because it created a dangerous situation for the unborn child. Even so once convicted women are placed in an extremely dangerous situation, in Just Mercy Stevenson discuses, “The male warden allowed the male guards into the showers during prison counts. Officers leered at naked women and made crude comments and suggestive threats.” (238). This opens women up to sexual assault and further harassments. It is also mentioned that the guards are allowed into the bathrooms and there would many occurrences of a woman being raped. These stories are horrifying, these women being arrested for such minor offenses and being forced to leave their children alone. In the book it did not appear to be one of Stevenson’s main focuses and I feel that these women need to be given more help. The justice system is supposed to help protect citizens not to open them up to further harm. This is another instance where there is damage being done. Stevenson does mention that there is a reform and male guards are no longer allowed in the bathroom area, but I feel that more needs to be done to protect the women that fall under that jurisdiction.
Many of the people put in prison are those who suffer from mental impairments. In Just Mercy, Stevenson includes “Today, over 50% of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness”. (188). This shows you how prisons are being treated as a place to throw those who do not blend well in society. Of those people with mental illnesses there is a large population of them who committed horrific crimes without being aware they were. For example, in Avery’s case he was convicted of murder after he, in a state of hallucination, stabbed a man to death. Another case is George’s case, he wandered around into people’s houses until the police were called. Once called George got into a fight with the police and ended up denotating a police gun. In both Avery’s and George’s case they were convicted and given the death penalty. This is because many of the people with mental disabilities did not have adequate representation and ended up at the mercy of the court. Prison life once convicted as well is extremely difficult. There are many rules and regulations put forth that made it exceptionally difficult for these people to survive. One such rule is that prisoners must have their hands cuffed before having anyone enter their cell. For prisoners who have seizures or any type of psychotic episode they cannot get the help need because they cannot put out their arms to have them handcuffed. I feel that there needs to be more protection for people in the system with mental illnesses. Stevenson says that there are more and more laws being enacted to protect them. There was a ruling that deemed it cruel and unusual to give the death sentence to people with mental illnesses. Though there should be further help for those in prison.
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