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Just mercy : a story of justice and redemption

The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama recounts his experiences as a lawyer working to assist those desperately in need, reflecting on his pursuit of the ideal of compassion in American justice. - (Baker & Taylor)

The executive director of a social advocacy group that has helped relieve condemned prisoners explains why justice and mercy must go hand-in-hand through the story of Walter McMillian, a man condemned to death row for a murder he didn't commit. 30,000 first printing. - (Baker & Taylor)

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING MICHAEL B. JORDAN AND JAMIE FOXX • A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice—from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.

“[Bryan Stevenson’s] dedication to fighting for justice and equality has inspired me and many others and made a lasting impact on our country.”—John Legend

NAMED ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL BOOKS OF THE DECADE BY CNN • Named One of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times • The Washington Post • The Boston Globe • The Seattle Times • Esquire • Time

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

Winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction • Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction • Winner of a Books for a Better Life Award • Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize • Finalist for the Kirkus Reviews Prize • An American Library Association Notable Book

“Every bit as moving as To Kill a Mockingbird, and in some ways more so . . . a searing indictment of American criminal justice and a stirring testament to the salvation that fighting for the vulnerable sometimes yields.”—David Cole, The New York Review of Books

“Searing, moving . . . Bryan Stevenson may, indeed, be America’s Mandela.”—Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

“You don’t have to read too long to start cheering for this man. . . . The message of this book . . . is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made. Just Mercy will make you upset and it will make you hopeful.”—Ted Conover, The New York Times Book Review

“Inspiring . . . a work of style, substance and clarity . . . Stevenson is not only a great lawyer, he’s also a gifted writer and storyteller.”The Washington Post

“As deeply moving, poignant and powerful a book as has been, and maybe ever can be, written about the death penalty.”—The Financial Times

“Brilliant.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer - (Random House, Inc.)

Author Biography

Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. He has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court, and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color. He has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. - (Random House, Inc.)

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Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* As a young Harvard law student testing himself in an internship in Georgia, Stevenson visited death-row inmates and saw firsthand the injustices suffered by the poor and disadvantaged, how too many had been railroaded into convictions with inadequate legal representation. The visit made such an impression on Stevenson that he started the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama. One of his first clients was Walter McMillian, a young black man accused of murdering a white woman and imprisoned on death row even before he was tried. Stevenson alternates chapters on the shocking miscarriage of justice in McMillian's case, including police and prosecutorial misconduct, with other startling cases. The war on drugs and tough-on-crime political postures have resulted in hundreds of juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for nonhomicidal offenses. Among the cases Stevenson cites: a 14-year-old condemned to death for killing his mother's abusive boyfriend and a mentally ill adolescent girl condemned to life in prison for second-degree murder for the death of young boys killed in a fire she started accidentally. Through these cases and others, Stevenson details changes in victims' rights, incarceration of juveniles, death penalty reforms, inflexible sentencing laws, and the continued practices of injustice that see too many juveniles, minorities, and mentally ill people imprisoned in a frenzy of mass incarceration in the U.S. A passionate account of the ways our nation thwarts justice and inhumanely punishes the poor and disadvantaged. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews

A case against death row

Bryan Stevenson was fresh out of Harvard Law School when he embraced—first in Georgia, then in Alabama—the mission of defending death row inmates and others facing undeserved or disproportionate prison sentences. An African American from a poor family in Delaware, Stevenson accepts as a starting point the maxim, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done."

In Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, he builds his case against the flaws of America's judicial system by clustering his observations around the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who first drew community ire by having an affair with a married white woman. Subsequently, a drug dealer who associated with the same woman, in an attempt to lessen his own jail time, told authorities that McMillian had killed a local college girl. The dealer's ever-changing testimony was transparently false from the outset, but eager to close the case, the authorities arrested McMillian for murder, a jury with only one black member convicted him and a judge sentenced him to death. In succeeding chapters, Stevenson describes his struggles to exonerate McMillian.

His primary adversaries are deep-seated racism, tough-on-crime politicians, ambitious prosecutors, by-the-book judges, incompetent for-hire "expert" witnesses, a Supreme Court more interested in judicial expediency than actual justice, the rise of the victims' rights movement (which recognizes only the initial victims of crimes), the burgeoning private prison lobby and the "good Germans" among us who piously avert our eyes as we go about our daily business.

Although Stevenson writes in a calm, deliberate style, there are passages here so harrowing and outrage-provoking that sensitive readers may need to set the book aside periodically until they can clear their minds of the foul images it conjures up. Anyone animated by a modicum of fairness will recognize Just Mercy as a de facto call to arms.


This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews

A distinguished NYU law professor and MacArthur grant recipient offers the compelling story of the legal practice he founded to protect the rights of people on the margins of American society. Stevenson began law school at Harvard knowing only that the life path he would follow would have something to do with [improving] the lives of the poor." An internship at the Atlanta-based Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in 1983 not only put him into contact with death row prisoners, but also defined his professional trajectory. In 1989, the author opened a nonprofit legal center, the Equal Justice Initiative, in Alabama, a state with some of the harshest, most rigid capital punishment laws in the country. Underfunded and chronically overloaded by requests for help, his organization worked tirelessly on behalf of men, women and children who, for reasons of race, mental illness, lack of money and/or family support, had been victimized by the American justice system. One of Stevenson 's first and most significant cases involved a black man named Walter McMillian. Wrongly accused of the murder of a white woman, McMillian found himself on death row before a sentence had even been determined. Though EJI secured his release six years later, McMillian "received no money, no assistance [and] no counseling" for the imprisonment that would eventually contribute to a tragic personal decline. In the meantime, Stevenson would also experience his own personal crisis. "You can't effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it," he writes. Yet he would emerge from despair, believing that it was only by acknowledging brokenness that individuals could begin to understand the importance of tempering imperfect justice with mercy and compassion. Emotionally profound, necessary reading. Copyright Kirkus 2014 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, Stevenson traveled to Alabama, where speeded-up executions were threatening the very concept of justice as many of those condemned were too poor or disempowered to secure legal representation. To help such people, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative. From a MacArthur fellow and TED talker with a million-plus hits.

[Page 57]. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Reviews

In 1983, Stevenson (executive director, Equal Justice Initiative; law, New York Univ.) was doing an internship that involved assisting inmates on Alabama's death row. His memoir, which often reads like a true crime novel, relates his experiences with several of his cases, primarily that of Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to death for a notorious murder that he insisted he did not commit. Working with McMillian, Stevenson was put in contact with other non-death row inmates, and he soon realized that many, especially the poor, were in desperate need of legal help. Times have changed since the 1980s but inequalities still exist. This book is also a passionate rallying cry for people, especially those in law enforcement, to employ more just mercy in dealing with offenders. Stevenson provides readers with numerous examples of how circumstances could have been handled in a more humane way and expresses hope for change. Finally, he hits capital punishment head-on, and ends his last chapter with the thought-provoking comment that justice is not about whether people deserve to die for crimes they commit, but whether we (the nation) deserve to kill. VERDICT A must-read for anyone in the field of criminal justice and for fans of true crime. [See Prepub Alert, 4/14/14.]—Frances O. Sandiford, formerly with Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY

[Page 99]. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Reviews

Lawyer Stevenson's elegant memoir reveals the dark side of the criminal justice system as he recounts his efforts to help those who have been unfairly treated. His work on behalf of adolescents resulted in a Supreme Court case that prohibited life sentences without parole for children. (LJ 10/1/14)

[Page 42]. (c) Copyright 2016 Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews

With a mandate to serve the poor and voiceless, Stevenson, a professor of law at New York University and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal firm providing services for the wrongly condemned, describes in his memoir how he got the call to represent this largely neglected clientele in our justice system. He notes that, with no parole in some states and a thriving private prison business that often pushes local governments to create new crimes and impose stiffer sentences, America has the world's highest incarceration rate and, at 2.3 million, its largest incarcerated population. In an early case during his career, Stevenson defended Walter McMillian, a black man from southern Alabama, who was accused by a white con-man of two murders, although the snitch had never even met him and was himself under investigation for one of the murders. Through a series of bogus legal situations, police harassment, racism, and phony testimony, McMillian found himself on Alabama's death row, fully aware of the legacy of class and race prejudice that made poor Southern blacks susceptible to wrongful imprisonment and execution. Stevenson's persistent efforts spared McMillian from that ultimate fate, and the author's experience with the flaws in the American justice system add extra gravity to a deeply disturbing and oft-overlooked topic. (Nov.)

[Page ]. Copyright 2014 PWxyz LLC

School Library Journal Reviews

What is the one commonality of people on death row? If the victim is white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim is black. When Stevenson was a 23-year-old Harvard law student, he started an internship in Georgia where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. This assignment became his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, the mentally ill—the imprisoned. This fast-paced book reads like a John Grisham novel. One of those profiled, Walter, was at a barbecue with over 100 people at the time of the murder he was accused of, and spent more than six years on death row. The stories include those of children, teens, and adults who have been in the system since they were teens. This is a title for the many young adults who have a parent or loved one in the prison system and the many others who are interested in social justice, the law, and the death penalty. A standout choice.—Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

[Page 113]. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Higher Ground 3(16)
Chapter One Mockingbird Players
Chapter Two Stand
Chapter Three Trials and Tribulation
Chapter Four The Old Rugged Cross
Chapter Five Of the Coming of John
Chapter Six Surely Doomed
Chapter Seven Justice Denied
Chapter Eight All God's Children
Chapter Nine I'm Here
Chapter Ten Mitigation
Chapter Eleven I'll Fly Away
Chapter Twelve Mother, Mother
Chapter Thirteen Recovery
Chapter Fourteen Cruel and Unusual
Chapter Fifteen Broken
Chapter Sixteen The Stonecatchers' Song of Sorrow
Epilogue 311(4)
Acknowledgments 315(2)
Author's Note 317(2)
Notes 319

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