Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Just Mercy’

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin is this year’s Concord Reads (our community-wide read program) title. And it’s the reason I have bags under my eyes, because for the past two nights I have been compelled to keep reading long past the point where I should have put the book down, and then laid awake thinking about Willie Grimes, the innocent man of the title, and Chris Mumma, co-founder of the North Carolina Center On Actual Innocence, and a force for justice. Even though I’ve read other books about injustice (Just MercyThe New Jim Crow, Walking the Dog, The Other Wes Moorethis was still very wrenching.

Imagine your life taken from you by a wrongful conviction. Now imagine being moved constantly from prison to prison, and misunderstood by almost every single person you meet, judged and misdiagnosed by nurses and doctors and psychiatrists. Kept from your own siblings funerals. And imagine that even through all of this, you keep hoping that evidence is out there to free you, and you just have to remain true — never giving in to pressure, endless, insufferable pressure, to say you did the crime you didn’t do. The sheer number of times that Willie Grimes was either asked to confess or had a clueless member of the corrections world write a note in his record about his unwillingness to take responsibility — it’s mind boggling. It would make most people lose their minds, or their humanity, or both. Willie Grimes not only didn’t do either, he grew in his faith, he steadfastly continued to advocate for himself as best as he could, and when he was finally exonerated, he mowed other people’s lawns just to be helpful. In my view, he is truly saintly.

There are many other heroes in this book — Chris Mumma, for one, without whom Willie Grimes and many others would not be free. And she too faced obstacles that would defeat most people. Political wrangling. Egos among the people she assembles to form a commission in North Carolina to draft a process for considering post-conviction innocence claims. A mountain of said claims, and evidence that these were only a fraction of the cases out there. Barebones staff, no real power, very little budget. None of this stops her, and she is the definition of righteous. Although they don’t appear until nearly the end of the book, the crime victim’s granddaughters also seem like amazing people to me. They accepted that the man they had understood to be their grandmother’s attacker was innocent and spoke out about how grateful they felt for the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission’s work.

The people who should be ashamed of themselves is a longer list. They don’t merit any further attention.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Benjamin Rachlin is also a kind of hero for bringing this issue to a nationwide audience, and a very talented writer. This is an excellent book. One thing I admire tremendously as a librarian who teaches information literacy is the way Rachlin clarifies, in an author’s note before the book even begins, how and where he got his information and how readers can tell what are quotes from source materials and what are recollections of the people he spoke with. That kind of clarity is unfortunately not as common as it should be in creative nonfiction. Rachlin also excels at storytelling. I seriously couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew I’d be tired today.

Read this book. Tell someone else about it. Discuss it with people. Be prepared to cry, and to grind your teeth, and to mutter to yourself.

Read Full Post »

Last spring I attended the Public Library Association conference and one of the speakers was Bryan Stevenson. His talk was tailored to the vast hall filled with librarians, (he reminded us of public libraries’ important role as one of the last egalitarian institutions in America) but much of what he said is in Just Mercy, the book he has just published.

Just Mercy is about Stevenson’s work as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works to free the wrongly incarcerated, especially those on death row, and to bring about reform in a justice system that “continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” The book is remarkable not only because it is appalling that in the nation founded on principles of “liberty and justice for all” we have such a broken system, but also because the tireless work Stevenson and his colleagues do and the injustices they attempt to right both go largely unnoticed.

Stevenson writes eloquently and passionately about some of the people who have changed his life: Henry, the first death row inmate he met, who sang a hymn as the guard pushed him roughly out of the visitation room where he and Stevenson had spent more than their allotted time; Jimmy Dill, a man whose disabilities did not dissuade the state of Alabama from executing him, and whose stutter reminded Stevenson of a childhood encounter; Walter McMillian, one of the wrongly convicted whose freedom Stevenson won and who became a friend. He writes of the individual circumstances of these people’s lives and also of the broad and shocking statistics that bear witness to the lack of justice available to the poor, disabled, mentally ill, women, children, and minorities in our justice system. Stevenson equates today’s mass incarceration with slavery, racial terrorism (lynching and convict leasing following abolition), and legalized segregation as the most damaging racial injustices in American history.

Stevenson also writes eloquently about being afraid, angry, and broken: “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, and injustice and not be broken by it.” This is the most stunning thing about Just Mercy. While Stevenson suggests, and has brought about, many specific reforms, his final prescription for ending injustice is so simple that there is not one person who can’t participate in it.”We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.”

It’s that basic. We are all broken. Accept that, and we could be on the road to real racial and economic reconciliation. Reflecting on what he shared at Walter McMillian’s funeral, Stevenson notes, “Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

If you read Just Mercy you’ll conclude that we don’t. And you’ll conclude that racism is still pervasive in America today. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his column about Bryan Stevenson last month, “THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. . . . We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”

Embrace Stevenson’s call to just mercy, to compassion, to understanding and healing, and this can end.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »