Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: Book Overview

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What is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson about? What are the main takeaways of the book?

In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson discusses the 1989 case of Walter McMillian and his evidence of extreme punishments doled out more broadly by the justice system. He provides a diagnosis of the root problems with the American conception of justice and his suggestions for repairing it.

Read below for a brief overview of Just Mercy.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Over a half-century after the civil rights movement sought justice for African Americans, prominent movements such as Black Lives Matter continue fighting to expose and resist injustice. In this social landscape, lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson’s message is timely: The US justice system, through mechanisms like mass incarceration and extreme punishment, denies justice to society’s most vulnerable members.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson examines the justice system’s pervasive failure toward marginalized populations—especially racial minorities, but also women, children, veterans, and the intellectually disabled and mentally ill. To illustrate this failure, Stevenson primarily discusses the 1989 case of Walter McMillian, a Black man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama. He also cites other cases that reflect the justice system’s propensity for injustice and failure to fix its mistakes.

As the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit focused on ending mass incarceration and unjust punishment, Stevenson distills years of experience fighting injustice into Just Mercy. Moreover, having successfully argued before the US Supreme Court himself, Stevenson draws on his legal expertise as he discusses the legal hurdles that marginalized populations face.

Stevenson’s Legal Background

To begin, we’ll discuss how Stevenson’s legal background showed him the unfairness of the justice system and the need for merciful treatment of the accused. First, we’ll outline his work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), then we’ll proceed to Stevenson’s nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).     

Working With Death Row Inmates

As a student at Harvard Law School in 1983, Stevenson completed a one-month internship with the SPDC—an organization representing death row inmates in Georgia. Stevenson writes that while working with the SPDC, he realized that even death row prisoners have the potential for redemption.

After the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976, Georgia was flooded with death row inmates whose execution dates drew nearer. In response, the SPDC worked to prevent inmates from being executed before competent lawyers could assess their cases. 

An intern with little experience, Stevenson went to death row to meet a condemned inmate without a lawyer. His task, as he recalls, was simple: Tell this inmate that he won’t be executed in the next year.

After Stevenson nervously conveyed the message, the inmate was ecstatic—he talked with Stevenson for hours longer than their allotted time. Stevenson recalls the inmate defiantly singing an old church hymn when he was taken back to his cell. The flickers of hope and potential, Stevenson notes, were unmistakable. 

The Formation of the Equal Justice Initiative

Inspired by the SPDC’s work, in 1989, Stevenson co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)—a nonprofit that provided free legal assistance to Alabama’s death row inmates. Because Alabama’s legal climate encouraged expedited executions, the EJI was inundated with death row cases and struggled to keep up. Stevenson’s work during this period reveals pervasive issues that plagued the justice system: Defendants lacked adequate representation and were hastily sentenced to extreme punishments.

Although Alabama had the fastest-growing death row population in the country, Stevenson notes that it had no public defender system. Consequently, many death row inmates lacked legal counsel, leaving the EJI flush with requests for representation. 

Moreover, Alabama elected judges via partisan elections, which incentivized being “tough on crime” to convey strength to voters. Relatedly, Alabama was one of two states to allow judicial overrides, where judges could override sentences from juries. In 91% of Alabama cases, these overrides were used to impose the death penalty when juries recommended life without parole. 

Finally, Stevenson writes that the Supreme Court changed its treatment of death penalty appeals in 1989, leading to expedited executions for death row inmates. In light of these factors, Stevenson had to represent an array of clients, prioritizing those whose execution dates were nearest.

The Walter McMillian Case

Among Stevenson’s clients—first at the SPDC, then at the EJI—was Walter McMillian, a Black man from Monroeville, Alabama. In 1988, at age 46, McMillian was wrongly convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. McMillian’s case illustrates several of Just Mercy’s underlying themes: the racial biases entrenched in the criminal justice system, the use of dubious evidence and tactics to win convictions, and the lasting harm suffered by those wrongfully imprisoned.

Background Information: The Crime, the Arrest, and the Trial

To begin, we’ll discuss the case itself, including the crime, McMillian’s arrest, and the trial. Because we’ll examine the case’s nuances in the following sections, we’ll start by introducing it in the broadest terms.

The crime that McMillian was convicted of occurred on November 1, 1986, when 18-year-old Ronda Morrison was shot and killed at the dry cleaning shop she worked at in Monroeville, Alabama. However, Stevenson relates that police exhausted their leads within weeks, and after seven months still hadn’t made any arrests. Consequently, the local public grew restless, publicly criticizing authorities for their failure to solve the case.

The following summer, local criminal Ralph Myers was implicated in the unconnected murder of Vickie Pittman, a young woman from a nearby county. However, when police interrogated Myers—a pathological attention-seeker—for his role in Pittman’s murder, he made a shocking confession: He had also taken part in Morrison’s murder.

In particular, Myers alleged that on the day Morrison was murdered, he encountered McMillian at a local gas station, and McMillian forced him to drive to Jackson Cleaners, where Morrison worked. Further, Myers alleged that after McMillian left Jackson Cleaners, he confessed to murdering Morrison while inside. Then, according to Myers, McMillian forced him to drive back to the original gas station, where McMillian’s car was parked.

Though Myers’s story was rife with inconsistencies, Stevenson observes that police had grown desperate to quiet public criticism and solve the Morrison case. Consequently, in June of 1987, Monroeville police arrested McMillian on the basis of Myers’ allegation.

Over a year after his arrest, McMillian went to trial in August of 1988 for capital murder, and after only three hours of deliberation, the jury found McMillian guilty as charged. Moreover, although they recommended a sentence of life in prison, Judge Robert E. Lee Key overruled the recommendation, sentencing McMillian to death.

How Racial Bias Affected the Case

Stevenson’s discussion of the case suggests that racial biases were partially responsible for McMillian’s arrest, conviction, and death sentence. More generally, he says, McMillian’s case reveals that racial bias undermines the integrity of the legal system.

First, Stevenson notes that in the weeks before Morrison’s murder, news broke of McMillian’s affair with a white woman, Karen Kelly. According to Stevenson, this affair caused public disgrace for McMillian: Though the Supreme Court found anti-miscegenation statutes unconstitutional in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, Alabama’s state constitution still banned interracial marriage at that time.

As a result, Stevenson says, both the general public and authorities in particular were heavily biased against McMillian. To show as much, Stevenson observes that when Sheriff Thomas Tate arrested McMillian, he shouted an array of racial slurs and even allegedly told McMillian that he deserved to be lynched.

In addition to influencing McMillian’s arrest, racial biases influenced the trial itself. As Stevenson relates, the judge moved the trial to Baldwin County under the pretense that there was too much coverage of the crime in Monroe County. Baldwin County, however, had the lowest African American population of any nearby county—9%, compared with 72% in nearby Wilcox County, 45% in nearby Clarke County, and 40% in Monroe County itself. This change of venue, Stevenson argues, was devastating for McMillian’s chances of acquittal: The jury that swiftly convicted McMillian had only one African-American member.

Stevenson also argues that racial biases likely affected the judge’s decision to implement the death penalty. To show as much, he cites 1987’s McCleskey v. Kemp, which found that those convicted in Georgia were 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty if their victim was white. In the same vein, he notes that although 65% of Alabama homicide victims are Black, 80% of Alabama’s death row inmates were sentenced for crimes against white people. 

The Long Road to Exoneration

Via the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson began representing McMillian shortly after his conviction. Despite various failed appeals from 1990 to 1993, McMillian was released from prison in 1993 after the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction. Yet, given the herculean effort needed to exonerate him, Stevenson suggests that the justice system is far too complacent regarding unjust convictions.

Stevenson first filed a brief to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 1991. In this appeal, he made various arguments: Myers’s testimony lacked credible corroboration; jury selection was racially discriminatory; the change of venue to Baldwin County was illicit; and finally, the judge’s use of judicial override was improper. However, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected these arguments, upholding McMillian’s conviction and death sentence.

After the ruling, Stevenson and investigators uncovered more evidence of McMillian’s innocence. For example, they discovered that Hooks was paid $5,000 for his testimony and that the DA and Sheriff Tate released Hooks from prison the day after his testimony; they were legally obligated to disclose this information to the defense, but failed to. 

Additionally, Myers contacted Stevenson directly and recanted his testimony. He further explained that Sheriff Tate and others had threatened him with the death penalty after his two previous recantations. In light of this evidence, Stevenson filed a Rule 32 petition, granting him access to all police and prosecutorial files.

In the Rule 32 hearing, Stevenson presented new evidence of McMillian’s innocence. In particular, he called Myers to the stand, who recanted his original testimony. He also called multiple witnesses who spent time in jail with Myers, whom Myers previously told that his original testimony was fabricated. Crucially, Stevenson presented tapes of Myers in police custody, where Sheriff Tate threatened him if he didn’t testify against McMillian, despite Myers protesting that he had nothing to do with the Morrison murder.

Nonetheless, the presiding judge denied McMillian relief, claiming there wasn’t sufficient evidence that Myers’s original testimony was fabricated. Consequently, Stevenson sought to appeal the decision in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. 

Meanwhile, Stevenson notes that the new DA—Tom Chapman—had grown doubtful of McMillian’s guilt, ordering an Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) inquiry into the crime. Six months later, ABI investigators revealed their findings: McMillian didn’t kill Ronda Morrison. Six weeks after the ABI’s report, the Court of Criminal Appeals released its verdict: McMillian was wrongly convicted, and he deserved a new trial.

In light of the ABI’s report, however, DA Chapman chose not to re-prosecute McMillian. Rather, the State supported Stevenson’s motion to dismiss all charges against McMillian, leading to his immediate release. On March 2nd, 1993—nearly six years after his original arrest—McMillian was exonerated and released from prison.

The Aftermath of Six Years on Death Row

Despite his exoneration, McMillian’s conviction and time in prison had lasting consequences. Indeed, Stevenson argues that McMillian’s unjust conviction caused him irreversible damage.

First, McMillian’s wife, Winnie, decided to separate from him, so he lived alone in a trailer in Monroe County after his release.

Moreover, although Stevenson filed a civil lawsuit against those involved in McMillian’s prosecution—like Sheriff Tate, the other investigators, and the DA—laws protecting state agents from civil liabilities made it difficult to win compensation. Altogether, McMillian received only a few hundred thousand dollars to compensate for six years imprisoned on death row.

Finally, Stevenson recalls that as McMillian grew older, he developed trauma-induced dementia, requiring constant care. However, because he was convicted of a felony, few nursing homes would accept him—even though he was exonerated. Further, though one nursing home let McMillian stay for 90 days, he suffered hallucinations of death row while there. Although he was released from death row, McMillian’s memories of it left him permanently scarred.

Mass Incarceration and Excessive Punishment

Stevenson discusses McMillian’s case throughout Just Mercy. However, he also examines other cases of unjust punishment, revealing a common theme: The US justice system consistently doles out extreme punishments to the most vulnerable Americans. Stevenson says four demographics are susceptible to unjust punishments: children, the intellectually disabled and mentally ill, veterans, and women. 

Steps Toward Progress: Confronting Ignorance and Legal Hurdles

Despite the justice system’s failure toward society’s most vulnerable, Stevenson suggests that progress is possible, both in public understanding of justice and in the legal system’s conception of just punishment.

Correcting our Understanding of Justice (problems with criminal justice system)

According to Stevenson, four institutions have affected our view of justice, especially in relation to race: slavery, convict leasing, the Jim Crow era, and mass incarceration. He argues that these institutions have corrupted our understanding of justice, explaining society’s complacency with unjust punishments.

Institution #1: Slavery

First, Stevenson claims that slavery—and its legacy of racial terror, in which Black men were publicly lynched throughout the South—has influenced our conception of justice. In particular, he argues that frequent lynchings of Black men led to the modern death penalty, as it redirected the ire of white southerners that previously culminated in lynchings. By recognizing this connection, Stevenson implies that we can help undermine the broad public support for capital punishment.

Institution #2: Convict Leasing

Next, Stevenson discusses convict leasing—the practice of convicting former slaves of frivolous crimes to lease them to private businesses while incarcerated. Convict leasing, Stevenson argues, has effectively led to the re-enslavement of former slaves. Consequently, he implies that it’s responsible for our complacency with the modern prison labor system, in which prisoners work for little to no wages

Institution #3: The Jim Crow Era

Additionally, Stevenson argues that we fail to recognize the legacy of the Jim Crow Era, in which state laws legalized racial segregation. In particular, he observes that while we readily acknowledge the achievements of the civil rights movement, we don’t acknowledge the lasting harm that segregation causes by inflicting daily insults and humiliation on Black people. In turn, he suggests that to understand the discrimination that currently underlies the justice system, we must understand these lasting harms.

Institution #4: Mass Incarceration

Lastly, Stevenson argues that mass incarceration has made us complacent with the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color, as well as unjust practices like the targeting of impoverished communities for drug crimes. To fully grasp the shortcomings of our justice system, he implies we must reckon with the reality of mass incarceration.

Challenging Extreme Punishments of Children

Although Stevenson argues that our conception of justice has been distorted, he concedes that there has been some progress: After hearing Stevenson’s arguments, the US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing children to life without parole for non-homicide offenses is unconstitutional.

First, Stevenson notes that in 2005, the US Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to punish children with the death penalty, citing fundamental differences between children and adults that made children less culpable. In turn, this ruling provided a foundation for challenging juvenile life-without-parole sentences.
To challenge such sentences, Stevenson had to argue they were cruel and unusual, thus violating the Eighth Amendment.

According to Stevenson, such sentences were cruel because they didn’t consider children’s diminished culpability. He cited evidence from neurology, psychology, and sociology suggesting that children suffer from impaired judgment and are especially susceptible to negative influences. Moreover, he argued that increased dopamine receptivity leads to increased risk-taking around puberty, meaning they’re vulnerable to making poor decisions. These factors, Stevenson claims, reflect something we already recognize: Children lack the capacity for mature decisions that adults have

Because their judgment is impaired, children are less culpable for their actions. Consequently, Stevenson argued, sentencing them to life without parole constitutes cruel punishment. However, Stevenson notes that punishment must also be unusual to violate the Constitution; because 2,500 children in the US were sentenced to life without parole, it proved harder to argue that such punishments were unusual.

So, Stevenson focused on a narrower subset—the 200 children sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, like Joe Sullivan. Despite initial resistance from lower courts, the US Supreme Court decided to review Stevenson’s case in 2009. Later, in 2010, they delivered their ruling in Graham v. Florida: It’s unconstitutional to sentence children who didn’t commit homicides to life without parole.

Likewise, in 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, the court found mandatory sentences of life without parole unconstitutional for child offenders. In turn, people like Trina Garnett became eligible for resentencing, no longer condemned to die in prison. According to Stevenson, the ruling provided hope that many children sentenced to life could re-enter society.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bryan Stevenson's "Just Mercy" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Just Mercy summary:

  • An examination of the justice system's failures toward marginalized populations
  • Examples of criminal cases from history that illistrate the failures
  • Possible solutions for repairing the justice system in America

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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