For the second time in the past three months, PRI has been sent a book that gives a devastating insight into the dysfunctional workings of the American criminal justice system.
In the first, Nancy Mullane, also a winner in our international journalism competition last year, interviews a number of prisoners and follows their attempts to gain parole after serving long prison sentences in California. Their stories are compelling examples of the almost insuperable difficulties they faced to establish the right to rehabilitation and a second chance.
In Just Mercy, which was published last autumn, Bryan Stevenson gives a first-hand account of the almost insuperable difficulties he himself faced as a lawyer and co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in fighting for justice for black Americans. It is impossible to read his account of the perverse convictions, harsh sentences and institutional refusal to admit the possibility of error without despairing of a system that delivers such unfair justice to people who need it most. The cases he takes up on appeal went wrong at an early stage of the trial process, with inadequate legal representation, biased judges and juries and punitive sentences that seem in some cases to be almost personally vindictive.
Yet despite all the setbacks and anxiety, Just Mercy is an inspiring story of how a brilliant lawyer’s determination, persistence, patience and hope can overcome unfavourable odds and sometimes turn justice denied into justice delayed.
Bryan Stevenson and his dedicated team at the Equal Justice Initiative give their clients hope that – at least – their cases will get the attention they deserve, even if the outcome may not be successful. Much of the book is given over to the case of Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to death for a crime he insisted he did not commit. After Stevenson painstakingly pieces together the evidence and takes the case apart, it seems extraordinary that McMillian was convicted at all – and that it was so very difficult to persuade the various appeal courts to overturn the verdict.
Intervening in individual cases to correct injustices is an enormous achievement for any lawyer. But Stevenson has done a great deal more than that. By pursuing appeals to the highest possible level in the US Supreme Court – he has changed the law for whole groups of child offenders.
After the Supreme Court banned the use of the death penalty for juveniles, there was growing recognition that the development of children’s brains in adolescence makes juvenile offenders very different from adults. Emotional and intellectual immaturity is a crucial factor in reducing a child’s ability to act responsibly and makes them more prone to take risks without consideration of the negative consequences of their actions.
Stevenson determined as a first step to take up the case of a juvenile offender sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a non-fatal crime of violence. Arguing the case before the Supreme Court, he referred to the fact that the USA is the only country that imposed whole life sentences on children – and disproportionately on black children. In May 2010, the Supreme Court held that life imprisonment without parole for such children is cruel and unusual punishment, and unconstitutional. Two years later, it went further and held in a separate case that mandatory ‘life without parole’ sentences could not be imposed on children convicted of homicides. As Stevenson expresses it, ‘the Court’s decision meant that no child accused of any crime could ever again be automatically sentenced to die in prison’. Over 2,000 children could be affected by this decision – a huge step towards the humanisation of the criminal justice system for juvenile offenders.
Just Mercy shows how much can be achieved by one very dedicated man fighting for justice. But it also shows the huge emotional toll that this dedication imposed on Stevenson, his team and the clients for whom he fought. The justice process described is less a forensic examination of the evidence than a rollercoaster of failure and success – and in Walter MacMillian’s case, even the success of the legal outcome guaranteed no happy ending.