Anyone who has ever shown up for jury duty has been asked whether or not they are more likely to believe a police officer is telling the truth on the witness stand than a regular citizen. I remember the first time I was asked that question — I was in my early twenties and had to report for jury duty for the very first time. The court convened in my hometown of Reading, and the matter at hand was a homicide — the killing of an assistant manager at the drive-through of a McDonald’s.
As I filled out the prospective juror questionnaire, I thought it was silly to be asked about believing police more than everyday people. Police swore an oath to serve and protect the citizens of the district in which they work… then they swear ANOTHER oath to tell the truth on the witness stand. Two oaths! Of course you can trust the police. The lawyers for the defendant asked me to stand up, and asked me if I really believed the police were more likely to tell the truth. I said yes, with all the bright, shiny, naivety that a young white woman possesses. I was excused from duty.
Bryan Stevenson’s incredible Just Mercy was published in 2014. Had I read it before that first jury duty appearance, it would have gone differently.
Stevenson’s book (soon to be a major motion picture!) is part memoir, part gentle, eloquent introduction to the criminal justice system’s failings in some areas of the United States. I have never been a strong advocate for or against the death penalty, but some recent true crime stories on Netflix (The Staircase comes to mind) have made me wonder whether it’s truly fair to put a person to death because it was proven that they killed another human. In 2019. In the United States.
As Stevenson shares his story of studying law at Harvard and lacking a passion for any particular subject matter, then being thrust into criminal defense in the Deep South, I was at first amused (just “happening” to get into Harvard Law without being drawn to any particular area of law almost made me giggle) and then I was captivated.
Here was a man who not only found a subject to focus on — he found a reason to breathe. He lived for these men and women on death row. He visited the homes of their families. He listened to them. He grieved with their loved ones. He showed them respect and dignity. When a man called him from prison and left him a confusing voice mail, which made it clear that he suffered from some sort of mental incapacity, Stevenson drove for hours to the facility to see how he could help. He cared. He did the best he could, with the (limited) resources at his disposal to give them justice for the first time in their experience with the justice system.
Treating people with empathy has always come naturally to me. But it’s hard to imagine being able to look past the conviction, the jumpsuit, the jail cell, the handcuffs, and really see the person behind all of it. The way Stevenson tells his story, at first he was afraid — how would he tell this convicted murderer that he was just an intern, a student, not even a lawyer yet? It turns out the man didn’t care. He just wanted someone to listen to him, to treat him with humanity.
The cases that Stevenson describes are heartbreaking, and many are tough to read. As he lays out the evidence uncovered after the mostly young, mostly black, mostly men are sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit, it’s unfathomable that they were treated with such disregard. But they were. He works hard to overturn the convictions, but the time, the stigma, can never be erased.
If you’re like I used to be and have a sunny outlook on the justice system, give this a read. If you want to know why Colin Kaepernick took a knee, give this a read. If you’d like to be surprised by how corrupt institutions can be, give this a read. If you’re interested in how much money witnesses may be paid for false testimony, (you guessed it!) get this from your local library.