Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System (Just Mercy)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is there racial bias in the criminal justice system? Why was Walter McMillian convicted of a crime he didn’t commit?

Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy examines the justice system’s pervasive failures toward marginalized populations, especially Black Americans. The case of Walter McMillian is a prime example of how a Black man was sentenced to death just because of racial bias.

Let’s look at how racial bias can play a part in the justice system.

The Crime, the Arrest, and the Trial

Background information on McMillian’s arrest is essential to understand how racial bias in the criminal justice system can sometimes go unnoticed. 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.

(Shortform note: Remnants of the racist sentiments that led to McMillian’s public disgrace in the 1980s may yet linger; although 2021 polls suggest that 94% of Americans support interracial marriage, others have argued that these polls don’t reflect the unease that many feel about interracial relationships. Indeed, a study of American students found that pictures of interracial relationships evoked higher feelings of disgust than those of same-race couples, as shown by neural imaging.)

Moreover, commenting on the crime itself, Stevenson observes that Morrison was a white woman from a reputable local family. As such, the local media and community became heavily invested in the case and yearned for justice for Morrison’s killer.

(Shortform note: The media attention that Morrison received as a white woman isn’t uncommon; according to studies, media outlets disproportionately cover stories of white victims over victims of other races.)

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.

(Shortform note: In 1935’s Norris v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court ruled that systematically excluding African Americans from juries was unconstitutional. But, prosecutors continued to use peremptory strikes (rejecting jurors without needing to state a reason) to exclude African Americans from juries, and in 1965’s Swain v. Alabama, the Court ruled that the disparity between Black and white jurors struck by peremptory challenges wasn’t unconstitutional. It wasn’t until 1986’s Batson v. Kentucky that the Court overruled its decision in Swain v. Alabama, lowering the bar of proof needed to challenge peremptory strikes as discriminatory.)

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. 

(Shortform note: Despite the statistical study, the Court actually ruled against McCleskey—a Black man sentenced to death for murdering a police officer—on the grounds that the study didn’t establish that McCleskey in particular was discriminated against. Authoring the 5-4 opinion, Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. suggested that the study was better suited for legislators, who can change laws, than for courts, which merely enforce them.)

Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System (Just Mercy)

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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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