Just Mercy By Bryan Stevenson - Neekaan

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Just Mercy by Bryan StevensonNotes by Neekaan OshidaryIntroduction Higher GroundChapter 1: Mockingbird PlayersChapter 2: StandChapter 3: Trials and TribulationChapter 4: The Old Rugged CrossChapter 5: Of the Coming of JohnChapter 6: Surely DoomedChapter 7: Justice DeniedChapter 8: All God’s ChildrenChapter 9: I’m HereChapter 10: MitigationChapter 11: I’ll Fly AwayChapter 12: Mother, MotherChapter 13: RecoveryChapter 14: Cruel and UnusualChapter 15: BrokenChapter 16: The Stonecatchers’ Song of SorrowEpiloguePostscriptIntroduction Higher GroundStevenson opens with the story of his beginnings as an unsure law student and intern. It wasn’ttill his meeting of key mentors, like Betsy Bartholomew, a law professor who worked for theNAACP Legal Defense Fund, and later Steven Bright, director of the Southern PrisonersDefense Committee (SPDC), that he found his passion in criminal law and racial inequality. Hetells the moving story of being an inexperienced law intern for SPDC and assigned to meet hisfirst death row client, where his sole task is to tell Henry that he will not be executed in the nextyear. He comes into the meeting feeling nervous and unprepared, but Henry is passionatelyrelieved by the news that he won’t be executed in the next year. They end up talking for 3hours, losing track of time, until the guard interrupts their session. As the guard forcefully andpainfully cuffs Henry and pushes him out, there is a poignant moment as Henry begins to sing aSouthern spiritual song singing “Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.” Experiences like thesegave sudden life and purpose to studying law and Stevenson realized that all his life he wasstruggling with the question of “how and why people are judged unfairly.”

Stevenson describes his upbringing in the Southern and racially segregated rural counties ofDelaware. His grandmother was the daughter of enslaved people, and she imprinted animportant lesson onto Stevenson that “You can’t understand most of the important things from adistance You have to get close”. Stevenson came to see that this closeness for him was thefight for justice of those judged unfairly.Stevenson outlines the great mass incarceration industrial complex and the extremepunishment so often delivered without fairness. We’ve gone from 300,000 people in prison inthe 1970s to 2.3 million today. 1 of 15 born in 2001 will go to prison, while 1 of 3 black babiesborn in this century will go to prison. Laws have made it increasingly easier to try children asadults and deliver life sentences without parole. The war on drugs has increased the number ofprisoners for drug offenses from 41,000 in 1980 to half a million today. On top of this, collateralconsequences on the incarcerated have included banning their access to food stamps (even forpoor women wanting to feed their children), public housing assistance or simply takingresidence in your family’s place or prior community, as well as voter disenfranchisement whichfor African Americans in some southern states has reached levels only present prior to theVoting Rights Act of 1965. The cost of mass incarceration has skyrocketed from 6.9 billionspent by the government in 1980 to 80 billion today. On top of this, the privatization of theprison industry leads to a vested interest in profiteering off mass incarceration.Stevenson still offers a sense of hope, “that there is light within this darkness, he says inspeaking about the case of Walter McMillian, a black man wrongly convicted on death row. Hiscase which will be covered in this book, highlights the “disturbing indifference to inaccurate orunreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts”.Stevenson ultimately concludes with the vital lesson he’s taken that “ Each of us is more than theworst thing we’ve ever done. ” The opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice, he says. Heconcludes that a character of society and a nation is not how the treat the highest rungs ofsociety but “how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and thecondemned.” “An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, anation.”Chapter 1: Mockingbird PlayersStevenson tells the story of Walter McMillan, a black death row client of his, growing up inMonroe county in Alabama, home to the “Monroeville” of To Kill a Mockingbird. He opens with astrangely comical phone call he got from a judge by the name of Robert E. Lee Key. This judgewas telling Stevenson to drop his defense of McMillan, saying he had deep ties with drugdealing as “Dixie Mafia”. Instead, though we learn that when McMillan met Stevenson, heinsisted was innocent and framed. We learn more about McMillan’s upbringing in MonroeCounty. McMillan wisely saw that when Southern plantation owners shifted from cottom to thewood pulp and paper mill industry, black workers were especially at the mercy of the white

owners. Instead, McMillan industry started his own pulpwood cutting business, not earninggreat profits, but enough to be an independent and free worker.McMillan was not without his flaws, including a misdemeanor from a bar fight and being knownas a ladies man. But it was when he got involved with Karen Kelly, a white waitress who cameon to him, that he got mired in her ugly divorce, trial, and resultingly the public eye.Unfortunately, during this time two murders took place in the town, and one of the men in thecase suggesting McMillan was the murder of the victim, a daughter from a well respected family.The police were quite desperate at this point to find the murder, as the town had begun to lookdisfavorably on the seemingly inept sheriff and police.In telling this story, Stevenson describes the great fear and resistance in the South to interracialmarriage and sex. “Miscegenation laws” go back to the 1860s and were upheld by the SupremeCourt in 1880s, and it was common to expect lynching during this time when it was discoveredthat a black man was having relations with a white woman. It wasn’t till 1967 that the SupremeCourt shut down anti miscegenation laws, but even still such laws still existed in Stateconstitutions; in Alabama it wasn’t till 2000 that a ballot measure finally struck it down, by arelatively narrow margin. This sentiment undoubtedly played into the perception of McMillan’scase.Chapter 2: StandStevenson describes his early days as a lawyer, sleeping on his Steven Bright’s couch until hefinally mustered the time and money to move in with a friend of his in Atlanta. He thendescribes his huge case load working both for Alabama civil and criminal law while managingdeath penalty cases. He goes into the cruel punishment in prisons, including solitaryconfinement, “sweatboxes” where prisoners are confined in extreme heat for days or weeks, orchaining prisoners to “hitching posts” where there arms were fastened above their head and hadthem forced to stay there for hours (a practice that was declared unconstitutional till 2002).Exemplifying the brutal in prisons, Stevenson describes a case presented by the family ofLourida Ruffin. Ruffin was a large African American man who after being stopped for a trafficviolation, was beaten badly, thrown in a jail cell, and not provided for when we begged that heneeded his asthma inhaler and medication. He died in his cell that night, and while the prisonguards claimed natural causes, all the jailmates told a different story.Stevenson then tells a personal story in which he was wrongly held up by the police. After abusy night of work, he had the fortune of his finicky car stereo working as he listened to some ofhis favorite old tunes on the radio. When he arrived home he parked but kept listening to themusic he loved, but noting that he kept it low enough that nothing would be heard outside. TwoSWAT cops soon showed up and had him get out of the car, threatening to “Blow his head off” ifhe moved. Stevenson almost ran, but calmed down and assured the officers that all was ok and

that he lived here. The cops nonetheless illegally searched his car, and after finding nothing,they let him go. They said neighbors had called about a suspected burglar, as there had beenburglaries in the prior weeks. Stevenson tried to report the cops, writing out all the ways hisrights were violated, but nothing came of it.In retrospect, he realized how fortunate he was to not have “ran”, and thought about all the otheryoung black men who may have ran in fear. Stevenson ended talking to community groups andchurch gatherings on his work. In one church group, Stevenson got emotional, telling of hisrunup with the SWAT officers and their unjust treatment. As he was telling this, an old blackman in a wheelchair kept staring at him. At the end of the talk, he came up to him holding hisstare. He asked Stevenson “Do you know what you’re doing?” After Stevenson said “I thinkso,” the man broke the tension and said “You’re beating the drum of justice!” He told Stevensonto continue to beat the drum, and he showed him his 3 scars on his body, head, and face. Hesaid he got these protesting and fighting for civil rights, and that they weren’t scars, but his“medals of honor”.Chapter 3: Trials and TribulationThis chapter tells the story of McMillan’s unjust arrest, framing, and guilty verdict. Sheriff Tate,ABI investigators, and the DA realize that it’s too implausible to arrest McMillan on the groundsof murder of Morrison. But Ralph Myers, a severely burned white man known for his unreliablestories, builds on the suggestion of officers that he was assaulted by McMillan and concocts astory that McMillan sexually assaulted him. Tate seizes on this and arrests McMillan for“sodomy”. During his arrest, Tate and officers unashamedly throw racial epithets at McMillanand even bring up the recent lynching of a black man named Michael Donald, terrifyingMcMillan. Later officers get Myers to concoct an implausible story of robbery murder ofwhereby in mid day, McMillan walks up to Myers in a gas station, says his arm is injured andneeds to someone to drive him (despite being able to drive to the gas station), drives to thecrime scene, while Myers leaves to buy cigarettes elsewhere, and returns to have McMillancome out after killing the store clerk and having Myers drive him back to the gas station onlyafter threatening he’d kill him if he told anyone. Later Tate and investigators promise release toa black man, Bill Hooks, known as the jail snitch, if he helps incriminate McMillan in the Morrisonmurder. He says he saw their truck at the cleaners and saw the two men pull away. With thesetwo claims, they proceed to prosecute McMillan.McMillan however has a obvious alibi. During the day of the murder, his family and otherchurch goers were hosting a fish fry on his front lawn to raise funds for their church, whileMcMillan worked with a friend of his on fixing the transition of his car. Dozens of those at thefish fry were able to attest that McMillan was clearly not involved in the murder.Nonetheless, McMillan was put on death row until his case was ready something which isillegal to do before someone has been convicted, but this did not stop Sheriff Tate from doing

so. On death row, McMillan heard the terrible stories of the electric chair, including the horrificand prolonged execution of John Evans, which took 14 minutes total with 3 tries ofelectrocution; the prisoners said they could smell his burnt flesh reach their cells.Walter’s family helped raise money to hire two black lawyers, but this was interpreted by Tateand prosecutors of confirmation that Walter had hidden drug money. Meanwhile, otherprisoners tell Walter that he can file a claim demanding he be taken off death row, as their wasno conviction. Walter has few reading and writing skills, so despite attempting, his claim fails.Meanwhile, Myers is put on death row too and this makes him psychologically deteriorate andhe promises to say anything to get off death row. This plays into the hands of Sheriff Tate, aswell as the DA Ted Pearson who wants to soon retire but want victory in this case to save hispublic image that was threatened by the inability to incriminate anyone in the Morrison case forso long.Walter still believes that because the claims were so utterly implausible, once the evidence isreviewed he would be declared innocent. Yet his fate takes a terrible turn. Walter’s lawyerswant to move the trial to a county with less public eye, and nearly all the surrounding countieshave sizable black populations for jury selection. But after very likely conspiracy between theDA and Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Judge Key grants the motion to move the trial but to BaytonCounty, the very conservative county which has a very small black population.All white juries have been a cause for many Supreme Court rulings over the years, and despitethe laws passed, judges and prosecutors have gotten creative in the “peremptory strikes” theyuse to exclude black from the jury.Walter still thinks the case against him has no chance. But he must wait an extra 6 months afterthe case is postponed due to the psychological deterioration of Myers.Unbelievably though, when the trial happens, it is quick and decisive. Myers is cross examinedand his lies and implausible story are exposed, but the jury and prosecutors seem to ignore allthis. The prosecutor simply has Myers retell his story a second time, and after testimony byBooks and another white man Walter does not know, they jury pronounces McMillan guilty.Chapter 4: The Old Rugged CrossStevenson and colleague started the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, after a false startwith an another nonprofit they started earlier in Tuscaloosa. Just after barely getting off theground, Stevenson was soon flooded by many death row inmates begging for help. Judge“overrides” in cases were common, whereby the judge could change a jury’s decision for a lifesentence to one of capital punishment. Tragically,