Jesus once told a cabal of religious leaders anxious to stone a woman caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7, NIV). In his bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014; Amazon Kindle edition), New York University School of Law Professor Bryan Stevenson calls us to a different task, that of catching the stones cast by others.
Just Mercy recounts Professor Stevenson’s founding of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal aid organization based in Montgomery, Alabama that advocates for those who are victims of shortcomings in the U.S. criminal justice system – the wrongfully convicted, prisoners on death row, and juveniles tossed into the chaos of the adult prison population.
Caring about prisoners is a biblical mandate – “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them…” (Hebrews 13:3a, ESV) – so books like Mr Stevenson’s invite the Church to engage an issue too often shunted aside. Well-told stories seize the reader’s heart and won’t let go, stories like Walter McMillan, exonerated after having spent 6 years on death row for a murder he couldn’t have committed. Then there’s Joe Sullivan, convicted with dubious evidence and testimony at 13 years old of rape and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, what Stevenson calls “death in prison.” These and a dozen other vignettes – bolstered by troubling statistics of the sheer number of incarcerated Americans, disproportionately African-American – tell the story of sectors of a criminal justice and prison system tainted by racism and sexual abuse, desperately needing reform.