International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International judicial Academy of the International Law Institute, Washington, D.C.
with circulation assistance from the American Society of International Law

Winter 2018 Issue

In Review:
Books About International Law and About Courts and Judges


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

By: Bryan Stephenson
Spiegel & Gray, New York 2014

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Reviewed by: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor

In a recent issue of Time magazine, the featured article was “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”  The selections were made by 100 persons who are themselves influential, or at least well known in the particular field of the selectee. The selectees do not have to be persons who are admired, but just influential. For that reason, there are some dark choices among many luminaries, such as Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea. Also in the article are some quoted commentaries by the selectees answering the question “What inspires the Time 100? One of the selectees, an actor and producer, Lena Waithe, answered the question by referring to Bryan Stephenson’s book Just Mercy. She stated “This book should be required reading for every human being on this planet.” That statement is probably the ultimate accolade for a writer.

Without discussing whether this book should be distributed for world-wide perusal by every person, it is a book that should be required reading for judges, lawyers, prosecutors, police officials, jurists, law professors, law students and others who participate in rule of law activities, not just in the U.S. but around the world. It teaches what justice means “on the ground” rather than in the library and classroom.

The venue for the accounts of cases and trials in the book is mostly in the southeastern states of the United States. The accounts provide a totally damning picture of criminal justice systems in these states, most of which were part of the Confederate States of America (CSA) during the U.S. Civil War. And the centerpiece of this slice of United States geography is the State of Alabama, once the location of the capitol of the CSA and the place where the main story in the book takes place.

The author of this title, Bryan Stephenson, is a unique individual. He is an African American, educated at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who eschewed the financial and other attractions of life in a major law firm in New York or Washington, or teaching in a prestigious law school. He chose working among the criminal justice systems in the south of the United states, with an aim of assisting those persons who had been wronged in their treatment before and during trials and thereafter. He approached his selection of a career with a passion and ability that is seldom seen, certainly in the criminal justice arena. His first job was with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta, Georgia. He later transferred to Montgomery, the capitol of Alabama, where he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization dedicated to assisting condemned prisoners and others who may have been wronged by police, prosecutors and judges.

Stephenson was the founder and chief fund raiser for the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery recently completed, dedicated to “the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” 

The book, written in a highly readable style, centers around one of Stephenson’s memorable cases, the conviction and death penalty sentence for a black resident of a rural Alabama town named Walter McMillian. The conviction was made on the sparsest of evidence of two witnesses, both tainted, against six alibi witnesses. The case was submitted to the jury made up of all white jurors (caused by the action of the prosecutor in excluding blacks from the jury) and the jury returned a verdict of guilty with a recommendation of life imprisonment. The judge, however, overruled the jury’s recommendation and imposed the death penalty, which is permissible under Alabama law. Stevenson eventually had the verdict and sentence overturned in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, after the case had been reviewed in a popular television show.

Stevenson’s activities in death penalty cases over a 30 year period has saved 125 men from that outcome.

The account of this case in the book is given in segments, surrounded by accounts of other trials with similar defects, by Stevenson’s activities in opposing the death penalty in the United States, and by other criminal justice reforms he has advocated. Stephenson’s style works, and the reader is captivated by the narrative.

Stevenson has deservedly received many honors and awards, including a MacArthur Foundation Genius award and honorary degrees from at least 11 colleges and universities. His book has won six national book prizes.

Books like Just Mercy do not “come along” very often. It is an exceptional piece of writing, and deserves a place of honor in the libraries of judges and others acting in support of the rule of law.

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2018 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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