Just Mercy rolls in to movie theaters today and we are very excited. Based on the hugely successful book of the same name (Amazon customers love it so much, they're rated it 4.8 stars), it tells the story of a man who was sentenced to death based on a wrong conviction, and the gifted young lawyer who righted the wrong. Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, has been called an American Mandela, and the movie, co-starring Jamie Foxx, shows how Stevenson's first case transformed him and set him on a path to using his legal prowess to perform the same miracles for countless others. Here are a few other titles that provide insight into Stevenson and the criminal justice system.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Walter McMillian was a young man sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit when he first met Bryan Stevenson. It was a momentous meeting for both. For Stevenson, it was the beginning of a case that brought about a legal coming-of-age so to speak, a case that transformed an idealistic young lawyer into one of the leading lights of criminal justice reform activism. For McMillian, it was the beginning of moving from the dark to the light, of experiencing compassion and solidarity from someone in the legal system after years of experiencing the opposite. Just Mercy will make you mad before it uplifts you. But it will do both.
The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder in Alabama. It should have been easy to prove that this was a case of mistaken identity, but instead Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death. But after spending the first three years of his sentence in despairing silence, Hinton resolved to make the most of his time on Death Row, inspiring his fellow inmates, dozens of whom were executed. It's impossible not to weep for this gentle, peaceful, loving man who could justifiably have ended up bitter, but wouldn't give in to those feelings. It's equally hard not to cheer when Bryan Stevenson shows up to take on Anthony's case...
A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law by Sherrilyn Ifill, Loretta Lynch, et al.
In 2017, about one month into Donald Trump's presidency, Anthony C. Thompson (professor of clinical law and faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law) invited other leading lights of today's civil rights movement to a roundtable discussion on the interplay of race and the law. His guests were Sherrilyn Ifill (President of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund), Loretta Lynch (former Attorney General of the US), and Bryan Stevenson (executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy). Their goal was discussing the importance of "reclaiming the racial narrative" and the resulting book is an attempt to share the conversation beyond the NYU auditorium. Eye-opening and wide-ranging, the discussion addresses the perpetual racial issues that have dogged the US, the contemporary issues, and the importance of keeping both in focus as America moves towards a truly colorblind justice system.
Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, et al.
Over a dozen years after Jennifer Thompson mistakenly identified Ronald Cotton as the African American man who had raped her at knifepoint, DNA testing proved her wrong, and she came face to face with the man she had helped wrongly convict. No one would have blamed Cotton if he had turned his back on her. Instead, they became fast friends and activists for social justice. Sad, uplifting, and inspiring, their meeting (and their friendship) not only changed their lives forever, but is helping to change the lives of others as they advocate on behalf of all who find themselves wrongly incarcerated.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable observation that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” sums up the premise at the heart of The New Jim Crow. Her argument that mass incarceration represented another, new millennium system for social and racial control was said by some to be contradicted by the progress made by African Americans in the US. Some pointed to the election of President Barack Obama as Exhibit A. Ten years on, time has proved her right and The New Jim Crow is more topical than ever, as evidenced by its growing sales. First published in 2010, the book has spent years on the New York Times list, won many prizes, and even been cited in judicial decisions. It's also inspired a whole new generation of criminal justice reform activists and social and racial justice activists. Note: in a nod to those she's inspired, Alexander donated royalties from the 10th anniversary edition to organizations working for racial justice.
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko, Tucker Carrington, et al.
When miscarriages of justice happen to individuals, it can occasionally seem like bad luck of the "wrong time, wrong place" variety. In The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington report from the trenches as they show the truth behind how the courts and Mississippi's death investigation system left the criminal justice system there open to abuse that resulted in dozens, maybe hundreds, of wrongful convictions. Between an investigation system that has barely changed since the Jim Crow era, and convictions propped up by junk science peddled by two grifters who knew how to game the legal system for profit, The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is a jaw-dropping, up close look at the forms institutional neglect and systemic racism can take, as well as the devastating effect on victims.
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I Know This to be True: Bryan Stevenson by Geoff Blackwell, Ruth Hobday, et al.
It doesn't publish until March, but here, Bryan Stevenson—who has committed his career to fighting wrongful convictions, systemic poverty, and mass incarcerationhere—shares the lessons he's learned throughout his life.