In preparation for lawyer, activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson‘s visit to Seattle on Feb. 24th (Queen Anne Methodist Church), I read his gripping and heartbreaking work Just Mercy. Working at a law firm that specializes in protecting the vulnerable, giving the underrepresented their day in court and fighting for the voiceless, I know how fierce the fight for justice is and expected that Stevenson’s story would be one of great difficultly and constant struggle. But not even I, cynical and way-over-informed as I am, was prepared for just how deep the brokenness of our ‘justice’ system goes. Not only does it seem to be this country’s first response to those who have been traumatized, but it itself is incorrigibly traumatizing to those who fall into its claws, which barbarically include children, women, people with mental and intellectual disabilities and, as I’m sure we’re all aware by now, a vastly disproportionate number of people of color.
The book can aptly be summed up by Stevenson’s anguished cry at the end of it: “Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us that we think something like that could be right?” This is after Stevenson has spent 300 pages introducing you to, and falling you in love with, black men who have spent the majority of their lives on death row in the South for crimes they did not commit; men sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide crimes they committed when they were children; impoverished women who gave birth to stillborn babies and were subsequently convicted of infanticide; people with intellectual disabilities who were unconstitutionally executed despite his team of talented and intelligent lawyers doing everything right. His work focuses on wrongful conviction (there have been over 150 people who have served time on death row and have since been exonerated…which means that the State is executing innocent people after using illegal tactics, false evidence, bribery and corruption to convict them and calling it justice).
In other words, Stevenson’s work is controversial: it is about the death penalty, which seems to be the lightning rod for our collective conception of justice as vengeance. We want, it seems, a scapegoat for the crimes we see all around us, someone to demonize so that we can feel safe again, rather than actual justice (forget about mercy). So we as a society are okay, even happy to, hand the power over human life to a State that by all accounts is, along with its myriad apparatuses, above the law. No sooner had I started to wonder where such a floridly evil idea as capital punishment came to be (and be celebrated) did Stevenson answer my question: “The racial terrorism of lynching in many ways created the modern death penalty. America’s embrace of speedy executions was, in part, an attempt to redirect the violent energies of lynching while assuring white southerners that black men would still pay the ultimate price.” Walter McMillian, Stevenson’s client that is in many ways the center of this book, is such a black man; Stevenson’s work got him exonerated and freed from Alabama’s death row (after many years on it); but at the expense of McMillan’s marriage, reputation and health. McMillan was easily thrown in prison for a murder he did not commit; his obvious innocence took years to prove and it was in many ways too late. The trauma of wrongful conviction (even if you’re innocent, people look at you differently if you’ve done any time in prison at all) to say nothing of the horrors of life in prison, takes its tolls – the body and the community keep the score.
But, speaking of community, Stevenson – perhaps unwittingly – also gives us a stunning picture of unconditional love. Mr. Carter was a black 16 year old was accused of rape and originally sentenced to the death penalty but got his sentence commuted to life in prison and was shipped to Angola, a notoriously brutal prison in Louisiana. For the fifty years Mr. Carter was in prison, his “large family maintained a close relationship with him despite the passage of time. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many family members had fled New Orleans and were now living hundreds of miles away. But a dozen or so family members would dutifully show up at each hearing, some traveling from as far as California. Mr Carter’s mother was nearly a hundred years old. She had vowed to Mr. Carter for decades that she wouldn’t die until he came home from prison.” If such beauty can happen under such dire and brutalizing circumstances, what’s our excuse for lack of community, steadfast support and unconditional love for and belief in one another?
Sometimes, there is no balm for “the evil that is all around,” in the words of the late writer David Foster Wallace (more on him next week). And sometimes, you read books by people who are sacrificing more than you think humanly possible to bring as much balm to as many of those our violent, bloodthirsty, racist and poor-hating culture would just as soon forget or scapegoat. Stevenson is such a person. For now, I will cling to his unexpected words – from the torrent of wisdom packed in the last ten or so pages of the book, “Mercy is most empowering, liberating and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving,” and, what hit even more of a personal note, “there is strength, power even, in understanding brokenness.”