I Miss Alabamy Once Again, And I think It’s a Sin – a Review of “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

You may not know it, but the tooth brush was invented in Alabama.*

I really love Alabama: my mother is from there. A visit to the Collinsville flea market provides a new story every time I go. A lot of my favorite songs are about Alabama. See the documentary Muscle Shoals. I admit that I get a bit defensive when people pile on that state. Georgia, minus Atlanta, is pretty much Alabama

Bryan Stevenson, head of Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama graduated from Harvard Law School. And despite all the opportunities that brought with it, Stevenson forwent all of that to live an adventure.

Right out of school, he moved to Atlanta, then Alabama to represent the impoverished and oppressed. It sounded a little to me like the young idealists that say they want to move to the inner city/developing world and fix the problems there. Thats usually a very naive view of those communities.

On the other hand, for Stevenson, he was right. There were very bright line offenses taking place that he had the ability to rectify. And what strikes me in the end, is that Stevenson gave up the money and prestige and influence after he graduated from Harvard, only to receive it magnified (minus the money) now.

Alabama-love aside, there are some real, very real problems there. The states use of judicial override seems so ill advised. That is where a judge can and often does impose the death penalty over the sentence imposed by the jury. See Woodward v. Alabama.

Stevenson carefully describes injustices that are just hard to comprehend. Besides the judicial override, people are placed on death row with so little evidence. I struggle to get my mind around how these things could happen. Our system, which I have no doubt is among the best in the world, has so many checks: the police have to have probable cause, a district attorney has to look at the case, the accused gets a trial and often a plea deal, and then there are several options for appeal even at no expense to the defendant. Still, these guys with solid alibis, no motive, etc. were getting the death penalty.

Confirmation bias on the part of Stevenson just doesnt explain it way. There are systematic problems that may be a little more pronounced in some geographical areas, but exist in our great system.

Stevenson explains that people are sometimes placed on death row, or given egregious sentences because those particular people arent able to put up much resistance. Ive done appointed work and realized that the person I was representing really didnt know what was going on and what the consequences would be. He or she just wanted it over. A lazy lawyer could get a client in big trouble without facing too much retribution himself. Second, minorities are frequently victims of conscious and unconscious biases. Theres too much evidence to deny.

I heard a great lecture from Russell Fowler of Legal Aid of East Tennessee who talked about the history of punishment, including trial by ordeal, hue and cry, etc. Trial by ordeal, as you may know, was deciding  the facts by making the perpetrator perform some ordeal, or test. A witch might be thrown in the water to see if she floated, a man might hold scalding hot rocks to see how fast the burns healed.

These things sound ridiculous to our post-Enlightened minds, but they worked very well at the time! The reason they worked was because people believed in them. They actually believed that if you were lying, your sins would find you out.

The same is true of our current system. Its effectiveness depends not just on logic, but our faith in it. Its important to have compassionate critics pushing us to better and more thoughtful penal and legal systems. Otherwise, things begin to go sideways.

Stevenson just seems like a remarkable guy. I think the best compliment I can give is Stevensons book is that it changed my thinking.

*Otherwise, it would be called a "teeth brush."