Using our broken-ness to help others.

If you haven’t already, please read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. If you’re not much of a reader, then watch the film directed by Destin Daniel Cretton starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson. I will say that the book gives you a better insight into Mr. Stevenson’s work. However, Jordan’s performance as Stevenson was very sexy…so…there is that. (Insert the winking emoji here.)

Just Mercy follows attorney, Bryan Stevenson, as he represents Death Row inmates in Alabama. Although the state of Alabama takes pride in being the home of the famous To Kill a Mockingbird case, it is still blind to the racial disparity throughout the state. I can easily summarize the book and the movie plot for you all, but I want to talk about the personal impact Stevenson’s work had on me.

When I worked at the Federal Public Defender’s Office, my supervisor was representing a man I’ll call “Jose,” who decided to plead guilty to drug trafficking and possession charges.  I will never forget how young, vulnerable and afraid he appeared at the plea hearing, especially after the Assistant United States Attorney asked for the maximum sentence based in part on the fact that Jose had violated his bond. My supervisor calmly but passionately urged the judge to give Jose substantially less time.  In the middle of her argument, the judge interrupted, asking “Why should I be lenient when he brought drugs into our community and broke my trust by violating bond?” Paraphrasing Sister Helen Prejan, my supervisor responded: “Because we are all better than the worse thing we’ve done.” The judge smiled and let my supervisor continue her argument. Before imposing sentence, the judge looked Jose in the eye and said, “I was inclined to give you the maximum sentence because you broke my trust, but you’re lucky that you have a fantastic, passionate attorney who cares this much about you.” The judge then gave Jose a very lenient sentence.  Jose left the courtroom with his head held high, feeling that his humanity had been restored.

After the case ended, my supervisor told me that Just Mercy inspired her to tie compassion with the law. Stevenson was also inspired by Sister Helen Prejan’s words. She told me that David Singleton, my mentor, encouraged her to read the book. I immediately ordered the book and read it carefully. (I’ve read it three times…no shame.) I’ve used many quotes from Just Mercy during my cases because Stevenson brilliantly summarizes how I feel about the work I do.

Walter McMillian and Bryan Stevenson, shortly after McMillian’s exoneration. (Image from Eji.org)

Stevenson is famously known for the exoneration of Walter McMillian, also known as Johnny D, who was convicted for a murder he did not commit. McMillian’s case is a clear example of tunnel vision and abuse of power leading to a wrongful conviction. His case shows us that a wrongful conviction not only hurts the accused but his entire family and community. When injustice occurs, it takes everything good down with it. For example, families are left broken, people are consumed with guilt, and society is asked to ignore what happened. Although innocence work is important, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when addressing post-conviction work.

As I watched the film with my mother, I found myself crying throughout the entire film. Eventually, my mother said, “I feel bad for the man [Herbert Richardson] who placed a bomb on the girl’s porch and got sentenced to death.”

“Why mom?” I asked.

“I know what he did was wrong, I know she died. But, he clearly suffered from PTSD from serving in the military. And, he’s consumed with guilt but he’s got an illness,” my mother answered, “he should be in treatment instead of prison.”

Hertbert Richardson, a few days before his execution. (Image from Eji.org)

“I agree. And, death should never be a punishment” I said.

“What we do to black people in this country…sickens me.” She said.  I told my mom that I’d seen many cases like McMillian’s when I worked at the Ohio Innocence Project and many like Richardson’s while in law school. It’s very hard not to take these stories home. It’s especially difficult when I am representing indigent people in court.

Stevenson became very close to everyone he represented. Usually, young attorneys are encouraged to keep a distance and not become friends with the people you represent. I, like Stevenson, disagree with this. First, it’s easy to pretend not to care. However, when someone’s liberty is at stake, it’s hard not to care. For them, our representation is life and death. We have to care. Second, friendship and kindness restore people’s humanity. Regardless of what the accused is locked up for, that individual is still human. Something as simple as a handshake to asking about their favorite book makes all the difference. Stevenson’s compassion shows his determination to help those he represents. He can’t turn a blind eye to injustice, rather he has to act. Because of his compassion, Stevenson focused on a client-centered representation.

I truly believe that prejudice and ignorance are taught to us. Simply put, it’s learned behavior. Once we practice prejudice and ignorance, it becomes second nature. However, I think humans are built to inherently help one another, to care about others, and to fight for others. As a future public defender, I care about everyone I will represent. However, you don’t have to be an attorney to appreciate Just Mercy.

If you haven’t already, please read this book. If you haven’t already, watch the film adaption.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned.

Published by Nikita Srivastava

a passionate feminist and social justice warrior who occasionally calls herself a goddess. She received her JD in 2019 and became licensed to practice law in 2020.

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