Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
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Short Summary of the Book:
I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old student
at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and
worried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prison
—and had certainly never been to death row. When I learned that I would be visiting this
prisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show.
Georgia’s death row is in a prison outside of Jackson, a remote town in a rural part of the
state. I drove there by myself, heading south on I-75 from Atlanta, my heart pounding harder
the closer I got. I didn’t really know anything about capital punishment and hadn’t even
taken a class in criminal procedure yet. I didn’t have a basic grasp of the complex appeals
process that shaped death penalty litigation, a process that would in time become as familiar
to me as the back of my hand. When I signed up for this internship, I hadn’t given much
thought to the fact that I would actually be meeting condemned prisoners. To be honest, I
didn’t even know if I wanted to be a lawyer. As the miles ticked by on those rural roads, the
more convinced I became that this man was going to be very disappointed to see me.
I studied philosophy in college and didn’t realize until my senior year that no one would pay
me to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a “post-graduation plan” led me
to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about
your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn’t require you to know anything. At
Harvard, I could study law while pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the Kennedy
School of Government, which appealed to me. I was uncertain about what I wanted to do
with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, America’s
history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another. It
would have something to do with the things I’d already seen in life so far and wondered
about, but I couldn’t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear.
Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry I’d made the wrong choice.
Coming from a small college in Pennsylvania, I felt very fortunate to have been admitted, but
by the end of my first year I’d grown disillusioned. At the time, Harvard Law School was a
pretty intimidating place, especially for a twenty-one-year-old. Many of the professors used
the Socratic method—direct, repetitive, and adversarial questioning—which had the
incidental effect of humiliating unprepared students. The courses seemed esoteric and
disconnected from the race and poverty issues that had motivated me to consider the law in
the first place.
Many of the students already had advanced degrees or had worked as paralegals with
prestigious law firms. I had none of those credentials. I felt vastly less experienced and
worldly than my fellow students. When law firms showed up on campus and began
interviewing students a month after classes started, my classmates put on expensive suits and
signed up so that they could receive “fly-outs” to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or
Washington, D.C. It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparing
ourselves to do. I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school.
I spent the summer after my first year in law school working with a juvenile justice project
in Philadelphia and taking advanced calculus courses at night to prepare for my next year at
the Kennedy School. After I started the public policy program in September, I still felt
disconnected. The curriculum was extremely quantitative, focused on figuring out how to
maximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefits
achieved and the costs created. While intellectually stimulating, decision theory,
econometrics, and similar courses left me feeling adrift. But then, suddenly, everything came
I discovered that the law school offered an unusual one-month intensive course on race and
poverty litigation taught by Betsy Bartholet, a law professor who had worked as an attorney
with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Unlike most courses, this one took students off campus,
requiring them to spend the month with an organization doing social justice work. I eagerly
signed up, and so in December 1983 I found myself on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where I
was scheduled to spend a few weeks working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee
I hadn’t been able to afford a direct flight to Atlanta, so I had to change planes in Charlotte,
North Carolina, and that’s where I met Steve Bright, the director of the SPDC, who was flying
back to Atlanta after the holidays. Steve was in his mid-thirties and had a passion and
certainty that seemed the direct opposite of my ambivalence. He’d grown up on a farm in
Kentucky and ended up in Washington, D.C., after finishing law school. He was a brilliant
trial lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and had just been
recruited to take over the SPDC, whose mission was to assist condemned people on death row
in Georgia. He showed none of the disconnects between what he did and what he believed
that I’d seen in so many of my law professors. When we met he warmly wrapped me in a full-body
hug, and then we started talking. We didn’t stop till we’d reached Atlanta.
“Bryan,” he said at some point during our short flight, “capital punishment means ‘them
without the capital get the punishment.’ We can’t help people on death row without help
from people like you.”
I was taken aback by his immediate belief that I had something to offer. He broke down the
issues with the death penalty simply but persuasively, and I hung on every word, completely
engaged by his dedication and charisma.
“I just hope you’re not expecting anything too fancy while you’re here,” he said.
“Oh, no,” I assured him. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with you.”
“Well, ‘opportunity’ isn’t necessarily the first-word people think of when they think about
doing work with us. We live kind of simple, and the hours are pretty intense.”
“That’s no problem for me.”
“Well, actually, we might even be described as living less than simply. More like living
poorly—maybe even barely living, struggling to hang on, surviving on the kindness of
strangers, scraping by day by day, uncertain of the future.”
I let slip a concerned look, and he laughed.
“I’m just kidding … kind of.”
He moved on to other subjects, but it was clear that his heart and his mind were aligned
with the plight of the condemned and those facing unjust treatment in jails and prisons. It
was deeply affirming to meet someone whose work so powerfully animated his life.
There were just a few attorneys working at the SPDC when I arrived that winter. Most of
them were former criminal defense lawyers from Washington who had come to Georgia in
response to a growing crisis: Death row prisoners couldn’t get lawyers. In their thirties, men
and women, black and white, these lawyers were comfortable with one another in a way that
reflected a shared mission, shared hope, and shared stress about the challenges they faced.
After years of prohibition and delay, executions were again taking place in the Deep South,
and most of the people crowded on death row had no lawyers and no right to counsel. There
was a growing fear that people would soon be killed without ever having their cases reviewed
by skilled counsel. We were getting frantic calls every day from people who had no legal
assistance but whose dates of execution were on the calendar and approaching fast. I’d never
heard voices so desperate.
When I started my internship, everyone was extremely kind to me, and I felt immediately
at home. The SPDC was located in downtown Atlanta in the Healey Building, a sixteen-story
Gothic Revival structure built in the early 1900s that was in considerable decline and losing
tenants. I worked in a cramped circle of desks with two lawyers and did clerical work,
answering phones and researching legal questions for staff. I was just getting settled into my
office routine when Steve asked me to go to death row to meet with a condemned man whom
no one else had time to visit. He explained that the man had been on the row for over two
years and that they didn’t yet have a lawyer to take his case; my job was to convey to this
man one simple message: You will not be killed in the next year.
I drove through farmland and wooded areas of rural Georgia, rehearsing what I would say
when I met this man. I practiced my introduction over and over.
“Hello, my name is Bryan. I’m a student with the …” No. “I’m a law student with …” No.
“My name is Bryan Stevenson. I’m a legal intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense
Committee, and I’ve been instructed to inform you that you will not be executed soon.” “You
can’t be executed soon.” “You are not at risk of execution anytime soon.” No.
I continued practicing my presentation until I pulled up to the intimidating barbed-wire
fence and white guard tower of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center. Around the
office we just called it “Jackson,” so seeing the facility’s actual name on a sign was jarring—it
sounded clinical, even therapeutic. I parked and found my way to the prison entrance and
walked inside the main building with its dark corridors and gated hallways, where metal bars
barricaded every access point. The interior eliminated any doubt that this was a hard place.
I walked down a tunneled corridor to the legal visitation area, each step echoing ominously
across the spotless tiled floor. When I told the visitation officer that I was a paralegal sent to
meet with a death row prisoner, he looked at me suspiciously. I was wearing the only suit I
owned, and we could both see that it had seen better days. The officer’s eyes seemed to linger
long and hard over my driver’s license before he tilted his head toward me to speak.
“You’re not local.”
It was more of a statement than a question.
“No, sir. Well, I’m working in Atlanta.” After calling the warden’s office to confirm that my
visit had been properly scheduled, he finally admitted me, brusquely directing me to the
small room where the visit would take place. “Don’t get lost in here; we don’t promise to
come and find you,” he warned.
The visitation room was twenty feet square with a few stools bolted to the floor. Everything
in the room was made of metal and secured. In front of the stools, wire mesh ran from a small
ledge up to a ceiling twelve feet high. The room was an empty cage until I walked into it. For
family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh interior wall; they
spoke to one another through the wires of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were
“contact visits”—the two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit more
privacy. The room was small and, although I knew it couldn’t be true, it felt like it was
getting smaller by the second. I began worrying again about my lack of preparation. I’d
scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasn’t sure how I’d fill even fifteen
minutes with what I knew. I sat down on one of the stools and waited. After fifteen minutes
of growing anxiety, I finally heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door.
The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me, his face
screwed up in a worried wince, and he quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He
didn’t move far from the room’s entrance, as if he didn’t really want to enter the visitation
room. He was a young, neatly groomed African American man with short hair—clean-shaven,
medium frame and build—wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately
familiar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with, friends from school, people I played sports or
music with, someone I’d talk to on the street about the weather. The guard slowly unchained
him, removing his handcuffs and the shackles around his ankles, and then locked eyes with
me and told me I had one hour. The officer seemed to sense that both the prisoner and I were
nervous and to take some pleasure in our discomfort, grinning at me before turning on his
heel and leaving the room. The metal door banged loudly behind him and reverberated
through the small space.
The condemned man didn’t come any closer, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked
over and offered him my hand. He shook it cautiously. We sat down and he spoke first.
“I’m Henry,” he said.
“I’m very sorry” were the first words I blurted out. Despite all my preparations and
rehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly.
“I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, okay, I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student,
I’m not a real lawyer.… I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”
The man looked at me worriedly. “Is everything all right with my case?”
“Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at SPDC sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer
yet.… I mean, we don’t have a lawyer for you yet, but you’re not at risk of execution anytime
in the next year.… We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer, and we hope the
lawyer will be down to see you in the next few months. I’m just a law student. I’m really
happy to help, I mean, if there’s something I can do.”
The man interrupted my chatter by quickly grabbing my hands.
“I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”
“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year before you get an execution date.” Those
words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But Henry just squeezed my hands tighter and
“Thank you, man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news.” His shoulders unhunched,
and he looked at me with intense relief in his eyes.
“You are the first person I’ve met in over two years after coming to death row who is not
another death row prisoner or a death row guard. I’m so glad you’re here, and I’m so glad to
get this news.” He exhaled loudly and seemed to relax.
“I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me
or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. I just
don’t want them here like that. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank
I was astonished that he was so happy. I relaxed, too, and we began to talk. It turned out
that we were exactly the same age. Henry asked me questions about myself, and I asked him
about his life. Within an hour we were both lost in conversation. We talked about everything.
He told me about his family, and he told me about his trial. He asked me about law school
and my family. We talked about music, we talked about prison, we talked about what’s
important in life and what’s not. I was completely absorbed in our conversation. We laughed
at times, and there were moments when he was very emotional and sad. We kept talking and
talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I’d stayed way
past my allotted time for the legal visit. I looked at my watch. I’d been there three hours.
The guard came in and he was angry. He snarled at me, “You should have been done a long
time ago. You have to leave.”
He began handcuffing Henry, pulling his hands together behind his back and locking them
there. Then he roughly shackled Henry’s ankles. The guard was so angry he put the cuffs on
too tight. I could see Henry grimacing with pain.
I said, “I think those cuffs are on too tight. Can you loosen them, please?”
“I told you: You need to leave. You don’t tell me how to do my job.”
Henry gave me a smile and said, “It’s okay, Bryan. Don’t worry about this. Just come back
and see me again, okay?” I could see him wince with each click of the chains being tightened
around his waist.
I must have looked pretty distraught. Henry kept saying, “Don’t worry, Bryan, don’t worry.
Come back, okay?”
As the officer pushed him toward the door, Henry turned back to look at me.
I started mumbling, “I’m really sorry. I’m really sor—”
“Don’t worry about this, Bryan,” he said, cutting me off. “Just come back.”
I looked at him and struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring,
something that expressed my gratitude to him for being so patient with me. But I couldn’t
think of anything to say. Henry looked at me and smiled. The guard was shoving him toward
the door roughly. I didn’t like the way Henry was being treated, but he continued to smile
until, just before the guard could push him fully out of the room, he planted his feet to resist
the officer’s shoving. He looked so calm. Then he did something completely unexpected. I
watched him close his eyes and tilt his head back. I was confused by what he was doing, but
then he opened his mouth and I understood. He began to sing. He had a tremendous baritone
voice that was strong and clear. It startled both me and the guard, who stopped his pushing.
I’m pressing on, the upward way
New heights I’m gaining, every day
Still praying as, I’m onward bound
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
It was an old hymn they used to sing all the time in the church where I grew up. I hadn’t
heard it in years. Henry sang slowly and with great sincerity and conviction. It took a
moment before the officer recovered and resumed pushing him out the door. Because his
ankles were shackled and his hands were locked behind his back, Henry almost stumbled
when the guard shoved him forward. He had to waddle to keep his balance, but he kept on
singing. I could hear him as he went down the hall:
Lord lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on Heaven’s tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
I sat down, completely stunned. Henry’s voice was filled with desire. I experienced his song
as a precious gift. I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness
to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no
right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing
measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of
human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.
I finished my internship committed to helping the death row prisoners I had met that
month. Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s
humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own. I went back to law school with an
intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and
extreme punishments. I piled up courses on constitutional law, litigation, appellate procedure,
federal courts, and collateral remedies. I did extra work to broaden my understanding of how
constitutional theory shapes criminal procedure. I plunged deeply into the law and the
sociology of race, poverty, and power. Law school had seemed abstract and disconnected
before, but after meeting the desperate and imprisoned, it all became relevant and critically
important. Even my studies at the Kennedy School took on a new significance. Developing the
skills to quantify and deconstruct the discrimination and inequality I saw became urgent and
My short time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat
people in our judicial system, that maybe we judge some people unfairly. The more I
reflected on the experience, the more I recognized that I had been struggling my whole life
with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly.
I grew up in a poor, rural, racially segregated settlement on the eastern shore of the Delmarva
Peninsula, in Delaware, where the racial history of this country casts a long shadow. The
coastal communities that stretched from Virginia and eastern Maryland to lower Delaware
were unapologetically Southern. Many people in the region insisted on a racialized hierarchy
that required symbols, markers, and constant reinforcement, in part because of the area’s
proximity to the North. Confederate flags were proudly displayed throughout the region,
boldly and defiantly marking the cultural, social, and political landscape.
African Americans lived in racially segregated ghettos isolated by railroad tracks within
small towns or in “colored sections” in the country. I grew up in a country settlement where
some people lived in tiny shacks; families without indoor plumbing had to use outhouses. We
shared our outdoor play space with chickens and pigs.
The black people around me were strong and determined but marginalized and excluded.
The poultry plant bus came each day to pick up adults and take them to the factory where
they would daily pluck, hack, and process thousands of chickens. My father left the area as a
teenager because there was no local high school for black children. He returned with my
mother and found work in a food factory; on weekends he did domestic work at beach
cottages and rentals. My mother had a civilian job at an Air Force base. It seemed that we
were all cloaked in an unwelcome garment of racial difference that constrained, confined,
and restricted us.
My relatives worked hard all the time but never seemed to prosper. My grandfather was
murdered when I was a teenager, but it didn’t seem to matter much to the world outside our
My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved in Caroline County,
Virginia. She was born in the 1880s, her parents in the 1840s. Her father talked to her all the
time about growing up in slavery and how he learned to read and write but kept it a secret.
He hid the things he knew—until Emancipation. The legacy of slavery very much shaped my
grandmother and the way she raised her nine children. It influenced the way she talked to
me, the way she constantly told me to “Keep close.”
When I visited her, she would hug me so tightly I could barely breathe. After a little while,
she would ask me, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?” If I said yes, she’d let me be; if I
said no, she would assault me again. I said no a lot because it made me happy to be wrapped
in her formidable arms. She never tired of pulling me to her.
“You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get
close,” she told me all the time.
The distance I experienced in my first year of law school made me feel lost. Proximity to
the condemned, to people unfairly judged; that was what guided me back to something that
felt like home.
This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.
It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when
we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
It’s also about a dramatic period in our recent history, a period that indelibly marked the
lives of millions of Americans—of all races, ages, and sexes—and the American psyche as a
When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a
radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation
and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest
rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people
in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on
probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is
expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is
expected to be incarcerated.
We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to
carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row.
Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter
million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of
twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life
imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in
Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in
prison. We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or
minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a
costly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than a half-million
people in state or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980.
We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like “Three strikes and
you’re out” to communicate our toughness. We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education, and
services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too
kind and compassionate. We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst
acts and permanently label them “criminal,” “murderer,” “rapist,” “thief,” “drug dealer,” “sex
offender,” “felon”—identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their
crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.
The collateral consequences of mass incarceration have been equally profound. We ban
poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if
they have prior drug convictions. We have created a new caste system that forces thousands
of people into homelessness, bans them from living with their families and in their
communities, and renders them virtually unemployable. Some states permanently strip people
with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result, in several Southern states
disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the
Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being
sentenced to death and nearly executed. Hundreds more have been released after being
proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guilt, poverty,
racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system
that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.
Finally, we spend lots of money. Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal
governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prison
builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and
local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people
locked up so that they can earn more profits. Private profit has corrupted incentives to
improve public safety, reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promote
rehabilitation of the incarcerated. State governments have been forced to shift funds from
public services, education, health, and welfare to pay for incarceration, and they now face
unprecedented economic crises as a result. The privatization of prison health care, prison
commerce, and a range of services has made mass incarceration a money-making windfall for
a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.
After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the
incarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, I’ve gotten close to people who
have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillian. In this
book you will learn the story of Walter’s case, which taught me about our system’s disturbing
indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of
unfair prosecutions and convictions. Walter’s experience taught me how our system
traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn
irresponsibly—not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the
victims of crime. But Walter’s case also taught me something else: that there is light within
Walter’s story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. I’ve represented abused
and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and
mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. I’ve represented women, whose numbers in
prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about
drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute
poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. I’ve represented mentally disabled people whose
illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. I’ve gotten close to victims of violent
crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass
imprisonment—prison staff—have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less
just and merciful.
I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle
to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned
and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration that
come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each
of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated
has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is
justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the
character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be
measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us.
The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the
incarcerated, and the condemned.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of
compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can
make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair until we all suffer from the absence of
mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass
incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize
that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure of