The Disgrace of Our Criminal Justice

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

edited by Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn
National Academies Press, 444 pp., $74.95 (paper); available at
Equal Justice Initiative/John Earle
Bryan Stevenson with his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, including senior attorney ­Charlotte Morrison (center row, second from left), as well as with two of his clients: Jesse Morrison (top left), who won a reduced sentence after serving nineteen years on death row for a murder conviction in which the prosecution had eliminated all but one of the black jury candidates; and Jerald Sanders (bottom left), who won his release after serving twelve years of a sentence of life without parole for the nonviolent crime of stealing a bicycle. Also pictured is a tower at Holman State Prison, Alabama’s main death row.


In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small 1930s southern town not unlike Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Robinson is tried and convicted by an all-white jury, despite the best efforts on his behalf of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defies the town’s lynch-mob mentality and demonstrates at trial that the victim’s story is false. Robinson tries to escape, and is shot in the back and killed. The book’s considerable dramatic power derives in part from its raw story of racial injustice, but also from the author’s choice of an innocent narrator, Atticus Finch’s young daughter, Scout.

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy tells the story of an innocent black man from the real Monroeville, Alabama, wrongly accused and convicted of a violent crime against a young white woman, although in this case the crime is murder, and this time the story is nonfiction. Stevenson’s account of the trial and appeals of Walter McMillian takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, not the 1930s. But some things apparently do not change. McMillian, like his fictional counterpart Robinson, had committed the ultimate southern sin of having relations with a white woman, and he may have been singled out for prosecution in part because his affair had rendered him suspect and dangerous in the eyes of Monroe County’s white community.

Instead of Atticus Finch, the legal part in this story is played by Stevenson himself, a young African-American who grew up in rural and segregated Delaware, graduated from Harvard Law School, and founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office in Alabama, to provide legal assistance to the many unrepresented men on death row there. Stevenson is today, along with his mentor, Stephen Bright, one of the nation’s most influential and inspiring advocates against the death penalty. He and his EJI colleagues have obtained relief for over one hundred people on Alabama’s death row, and won groundbreaking Supreme Court cases restricting the imposition on juveniles of sentences of life without parole. Unlike Finch, Stevenson won his client’s case. After extensive investigation, he proved that the scant evidence offered at trial against McMillian was…

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