What are the best Just Mercy quotes to remember? What do these quotes say about the quality of the criminal justice system?
In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson describes the injustice many incarcerated victims face when they’re sentenced to death row. Drawing from all the cases he worked on as a lawyer, Stevenson gives insightful commentary on corrupt justice and making things right in the system.
Keep reading for the best quotes from Just Mercy with explanations.
Just Mercy Quotes 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, Bryan Stevenson’s message is timely: The US justice system consistently denies justice to society’s most vulnerable members.
In his 2014 book, Just Mercy, Stevenson examines the justice system’s pervasive failures toward marginalized populations, especially Black Americans. To illustrate these failures, Stevenson discusses numerous criminal cases, most prominently the 1989 case of Walter McMillian, a Black man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Alabama.
Here are three Just Mercy quotes that sum up Stevenson’s best points.
“But simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
Stevenson discusses how the justice system treats individuals with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. He argues that the evidence is clear: The US Justice System disproportionately imprisons the intellectually disabled and mentally ill, even though prisons exacerbate mental illness.
At the 2014 publication of Just Mercy, Stevenson notes that more than 50% of US prison inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness—five times the general population’s rate. Further, because guards aren’t trained to address mental illness, they mistreat prisoners with mental illnesses. For example, rather than receiving needed care, prisoners are regularly placed in solitary confinement, where their conditions worsen.
(Shortform note: Although mental illness is rampant in prison, prisoners often fail to receive adequate treatment. Indeed, a 2017 study found that only 36% of prisoners suffering from mental illness actively received treatment. Moreover, the prevalence of co-pays for medical care exacerbates this issue; all federal prisons, and 40 states, charge prisoners a co-pay for initiating medical treatment, which disincentivizes the mentally ill from seeking help.)
To illustrate, Stevenson discusses Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole for a crime he didn’t commit as an intellectually disabled 13-year-old. At 13, Sullivan burglarized Lena Bruner’s empty house with two older boys in 1989. According to Stevenson, another man entered the house later that day when Bruner was home, violently raping her. She could only describe her rapist as African-American, and the older boys were quickly apprehended by police.
To earn leniency with the judge, the older boys claimed that Sullivan—who freely turned himself in—had raped Bruner. Though he confessed to the burglary, Sullivan denied committing sexual battery, and Bruner couldn’t positively identify him. Moreover, though the police collected DNA evidence of the rape, they destroyed it before trial, making it impossible to exculpate Sullivan.
(Shortform note: Because Bruner didn’t clearly see her assailant’s face, her testimony focused on Sullivan’s voice in particular. After listening to Sullivan speak, Bruner ultimately testified that “It’s hard, but it does sound similar.” Thus, a key piece of evidence driving Sullivan’s conviction was the assertion that his voice was merely “similar” to that of Bruner’s assailant.)
Despite lacking credible evidence, prosecutors tried Sullivan as an adult and he was sentenced to life without parole. In prison, he was raped repeatedly by older inmates and became suicidal. He would later develop multiple sclerosis, possibly as a result of severe trauma, and require a wheelchair. Consequently, Stevenson observes that Sullivan’s condition grew drastically worse through his experience in prison.
(Shortform note: It’s possible that the repeated sexual abuse Sullivan suffered in prison also played a part in his developing multiple sclerosis, as one 2022 study found that childhood abuse is associated with an increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis. In particular, researchers found the strongest link between sexual abuse suffered as a child and multiple sclerosis onset later in life.)
“The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?”
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.
(Shortform note: Even if Stevenson is correct that death row inmates have the potential for redemption, death row conditions aren’t conducive to that redemption. In many states where the death penalty is legal, death row inmates are placed in indefinite solitary confinement and allotted fewer than four hours of out-of-cell recreation daily. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), these conditions harm inmates’ well-being to the extent that they’d rather die than continue living.)
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.
(Shortform note: The Court’s decision to reaffirm the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976 came four years after the moratorium on capital punishment imposed by Furman v. Georgia. In that case, the Court ruled that states’ applications of the death penalty were objectionably capricious, constituting cruel and unusual punishment. However, because they didn’t rule capital punishment itself unconstitutional, many states changed their statutes, leading the Court to reaffirm it in 1976.)
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.
(Shortform note: Hopeful moments on death row are few and far between, as inmates often suffer from death row syndrome—sustained psychological strain resulting from the uncertainty of execution and the isolating conditions on death row.)
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
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.