The decisions by two grand juries not to indict police officers in the deaths of black men mark an opportune moment — both depressing and uplifting — to write about civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson.
Stevenson’s story, told in a new memoir, “Just Mercy,” will not make you feel better about the ugly, persistent role of race in the criminal justice system. Rather, it will ratify the omnipresence of racial bias — from the happenstance of a police stop through the labyrinth of the court system to the horror of death row.
I happen to believe that the grand jury decision to decline an indictment of Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson was probably the correct call; the failure to indict the New York City police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner is appalling. But race suffuses both cases. That both police officers were white and both dead men were African American is a telling, essential part of the story, not a terrible coincidence.
One searing incident in Stevenson’s book underlines this inescapable truth. Stevenson, the great-grandson of slaves (and a classmate of mine at Harvard Law School), veered from the usual path of cushy corporate law jobs. Instead, he went south to do the most unforgiving work of all, representing indigent defendants in death penalty cases.
And so Stevenson was listening to the radio in his Honda Civic, parked in front of his Atlanta apartment, when a SWAT cruiser, lights flashing, pulled the wrong way down his one-way street and shone a spotlight at him. Two officers, dressed in military-style gear, got out of the car.
Stevenson, figuring he “would let them know that everything was OK,” exited, too — probably not, in retrospect, the smartest move. One officer drew his gun and pointed it at Stevenson. “Move and I’ll blow your head off!” he shouted.
The officers shoved Stevenson against the car, demanded to know what he was doing on the street and searched his vehicle. The officers said they had been called about a suspected burglar, and that Stevenson “should be happy” they were letting him go.
Eventually, Stevenson secured an apology and a promise that the officers involved would have to do “extra homework on community relations.” He wasn’t feeling better.
The lesson — that you do not have to be underprivileged, or wearing a hoodie, or doing something wrong, to find yourself in such a predicament — is both obvious and worth repeating.
Yet the value of bringing up Stevenson’s book is not simply to unearth another example of low-level, terrifying harassment. Rather, it is to remind us of the problems that infect the more hidden parts of the criminal justice system. Stevenson ticks off the issues:
“The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. . . . One in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated. . . . We’ve sent a quarter-million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of 12. . . .
“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. . . . 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.”
Stevenson’s life work has been to try to fix this system from his perch at the Equal Justice Initiative, a public-interest law firm he founded in Montgomery, Ala. Sometimes the progress comes individual by individual, as in the innocent people he helped free from death row; sometimes it arrives on a larger scale, as when he persuaded the Supreme Court to abolish the practice of mandatory life without parole for juveniles. Braided through nearly all these cases are the intertwined issues of poverty and race, and the toxic legacies of slavery and segregation.
All of which is depressing, but to read “Just Mercy” is also to be lifted up. Stevenson’s dedication to the poorest, most helpless clients — children and the mentally ill, the wrongly accused and the abysmally represented, all caught in the unforgiving web of the law — will reaffirm your faith in the capacity of the individual to extract justice from a system that too often seems disinclined to dispense it.