This past Tuesday night consisted of rushing to eat dinner, driving with my mom to the movie theater, seeing a film based on my favorite book of all time, driving home in the fog, folding laundry, and ending the night by shaving my legs. Like a lot of girls, shaving is a pretty normal occurrence for me, and I don’t usually think much of it. That night, however, a very weird wave of uneasiness came over me as I began to shave, and after about 10 minutes, I realized why that wave was hitting me: In the movie I watched hours earlier, someone else was having their legs shaved too. However, for this person, the shaving was not voluntary. This person was getting their whole body shaved in preparation for being put to death by an electric chair. His name was Herbert Richardson, and he was one of the death row inmates who attorney Bryan Stevenson represented in the movie Just Mercy. The horror on Richardson’s face as the prison guards shaved him from head to toe to speed up the electric current was extremely prolific, and it made me look at the simple act of shaving my legs through a completely different lens.
Herbert Richardson was an Alabama man sentenced to the death penalty after a bomb that he created and delivered killed a young girl. Richardson had an extremely traumatic childhood, yet he chose to rise above the trauma and do good with his life by enlisting in the military and going off to the Vietnam War. The young man was extremely psychologically traumatized during the war, leading to his honorable discharge. Upon returning home, his PTSD exponentially increased. At one of the hospitals he stayed at, Richardson met and fell in love with one of his nurses. They dated for a while before she tried to cut off contact with him. Not able to think clearly, Richardson devised a plan to win her back. He would construct a bomb, leave it on her porch in a box, detonate it, but save the nurse just in time. He had experience with bombs in the war, and he didn’t see this plan going wrong. Except it did. A little girl inside the nurse’s house saw the box on the porch, picked it up, shook it, and was killed instantly. Richardson, who was watching from across the street, was horrified. He had not intended to murder anyone, let alone a little girl. The courts, however, didn’t pay much attention to this. Nor did they pay attention to his deep psychological trauma. Nor did they pay attention to the honorable discharge and his dedication to fighting for the country. They saw a cold-blooded killer, put him on death row, and sent an electric wave through his body to kill him as revenge. Even the help and expertise of Bryan Stevenson and his team wasn’t enough to save this man. This is what the death penalty looks like in Alabama. As I watched his story play out on the screen, I had to keep reminding myself that this actually happened in real life. You would think that no court would overlook so much good and only focus on the bad, but as Richardson’s story proves, a system so ingrained in racism and discrimination often does just that.
When I first read the book Just Mercy, Richardson’s story was the one that stuck with me most, even though he was not the main character by any means. I didn’t even consider that the directors would share his story in the film version, but I am so glad they did. Richardson is clear proof that not everyone on death row is a cold-blooded ruthless murderer. He is proof of the failures of the criminal justice system. He is proof of the fact that good people make terrible mistakes. He also is proof of the unexpected humanity on death row. When he was being strapped to the electric chair, his fellow death row inmates banged on their cell bars and yelled as loudly as they could to remind Richardson that he was not alone. These men, who were apparently the coldest of the cold, showed Richardson a level of support and understanding that the courts never even considered showing him, and if this doesn’t make you question the criminal justice system, I don’t know what will.
I could go on and on about Richardson’s specific case for ages, but what I want to highlight in this post is the genius that is the book and movie, Just Mercy. I first became interested in the death penalty when I randomly chose it as the topic of my tenth-grade research paper. Initially, I didn’t have a clear opinion as to whether or not I agreed with its implementation, but after about an hour of research, I realized just how against it I was. I’m pretty moderate on most issues, and I am a huge believer in listening to both sides of a controversial topic, but the death penalty is something I will always be against, no matter how many valid arguments the other side may have. It all comes down to morality for me, and I could spend years talking about the death penalty’s lack of deterrence, its 1 in 9 error rate, the many execution mishaps, and the racism that often lies behind death penalty convictions, but I don’t want this post to sound like that 10th grade research paper, so I digress.
Anyways, about a year after handing in that research paper, I asked my friends for book recommendations since I really wanted to get back into reading. My one friend recommended Just Mercy to me, and as soon as I picked it up, I was captivated. The book details Bryan Stevenson’s journey in establishing his nonprofit, Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that gives free legal representation to those serving unjust prison sentences. Stevenson and his team work tirelessly to save those who are wrongly convicted and to educate the public on how broken the justice system often is. The book focuses mainly on the story of Walter McMillan, an Alabama man who was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of Ronda Morrison. Stevenson also details the uplifting story of Anthony Ray Hinton, a man accused of a double homicide, who, after 30 years on death row, finally walked free a few years ago. I wish I had my copy of the book with me so that I could cite direct quotes, but I left it on campus and was too impatient to wait until I got back to write this. Maybe it’ll serve as impetus for some of you to pick up a copy for yourself to fact check me or something. Still, there were some narratives and quotes in the story that have had pretty significant effects on my perception and life in general. I want to share them with anyone reading this in hopes that it’ll encourage you to experience the full book for yourself.
- Early on in the book, Stevenson mentions that everyone likes to praise him for his absolute selflessness. He explains that when people look at him and his work, they think he is the epitome of an altruistic person. He clarifies, however, that he doesn’t think his work is truly selfless, for a big reason he does what he does is to feel better about himself and his place in the world. This excerpt always confused me, for I believe you can still do selfless acts without necessarily having completely selfless intentions. The argument of selfishness vs selflessness was the subject of my Senior year philosophy final project, and I was lucky enough to get to interview a lawyer from the Equal Justice Initiative to get her take on the matter. Alison Ganem, the amazing and extremely informative lawyer I got the opportunity to speak to, explained that, in her opinion, people are motivated by selfish and selfless foundations, but at the end of the day, as long as you’re treating people with kindness and dignity, you shouldn’t take the negative connotation that the world “selfish” has too seriously. Ganem helped me out a ton with getting a new perspective for this project, but more than that, she helped me rekindle the love that I had for this book and this nonprofit. I remember walking back out to gym class after that phone call and telling my friends how inspired I was to one day somehow have the job that Ganem does. When the rush of inspiration finally calmed down later that day, I realized that hey, maybe I won’t necessarily be a lawyer, but one way or another, I want to be involved in seeking justice for the wrongly convicted, whether it be through a field of law, psychology, or communications. Needless to say, that little quote about selfishness snowballed into the motive behind my projected career path.
- Stevenson reiterates throughout the book that a person cannot be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done. He explains that if we label someone as solely a “killer” and nothing else, we strip this person of all of their humanity and make the death penalty that much easier to justify. This has always resonated with me, for you never know why a person is the way that he or she is. You don’t know all their highs, and you surely don’t know all their lows, so how can you judge someone solely based on one action, when in reality, so many different dominoes had to be knocked down before that final one could fall? While the not-so-good decisions I have made before certainly do not involve murder, I still would want society to look at a full picture of me before judging me for one particular mistake. I think we owe that right to everyone. This consideration doesn’t have to delegitimize the victim’s pain and suffering; only give the defendant a chance to tell their complete story.
- The quote “the opposite of poverty is not wealth- it’s justice.” I remember underlining it and just staring at it for a solid minute. The sad truth is that so many innocent people go through such lengthy trial processes that result in unjust verdicts simply because the defendant couldn’t afford a lawyer with sufficient resources. I recently read Anthony Ray Hinton’s The Sun Does Shine, where he explains that his court-appointed lawyer only had 500 dollars to hire a ballistics expert. The prosecution’s case rested heavily on fabricated ballistics evidence, but the only ballistics expert the defense could find didn’t know how to use most of the examination equipment, was low key blind, and contradicted himself several times on the stand. This contributed greatly to Hinton’s death penalty sentence. His family sold many of their belongings so that Hinton could get sufficient defense throughout his appeal process, but their lack of wealth still ultimately lead to a lack of justice. It makes me question why we put SO much money into executing people (yes, it’s more expensive to execute someone than give them life in prison), when we could be putting that money into bettering conditions in areas where poverty is prevalent.
Long story short, this book (and now movie) have done a whole lot for me. While I hate knowing how broken the criminal justice system is, it feels good to have found such a passion in wanting to help fix it one day. I see the work that organizations not only like EJI, but also like the Innocence Project and the ACLU are doing, and it gives me so much hope for the future of criminal justice. It’s a system that has so much room to grow, but for now, this book and movie are doing their part to guide public awareness, and that’s already a huge step.