Just Mercy – a movie about a real hero

Between a seemingly endless list of movies about comic book heroes, it is nice to see a movie portray a real life hero. The social justice efforts of Bryan Stevenson are portrayed in the movie “Just Mercy.”

The movie was directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Andrew Lanham also co-wrote it) and stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. Jordan plays Stevenson as he starts the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama after earning a Harvard law degree and growing up similarly to his clients. Larson plays Eva Ansley, the director of operations from the outset.

EJI provides free legal support to disenfranchised people who have been wrongly convicted on death row. Not surprisingly, the significant majority of the people on death row in Alabama are African-American and were underrepresented by legal counsel. Also, not surprisingly, the efforts of EJI did not make all citizens happy.

NOTE: If you plan to see the movie, you may want to skip to the last paragraph.

Foxx admirably plays a convicted man named Walter McMillan who was railroaded based on faulty testimony and suppressed evidence. When Stevenson sought a new trial after the key witness (played by Tim Blake Nelson) recanted, a police officer said the crime scene was altered and seventeen witnesses said McMillan was at a fish fry at his house, the judge still did not grant a new trial.

So, Stevenson appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and the court of public opinion on “60 Minutes.” The Supreme Court granted a new trial and after some posturing the new District Attorney agreed to Stevenson’s motion to dismiss the charges. Stevenson noted that seventeen witnesses were ignored because they were black. As they stood in the back of the new trial, before charges were dismissed, he noted that any one of them could have the same thing happen to them.

Stevenson has gone on to help free countless men on death row. A statistic revealed at the end is for every person put to death, there is 1 in 9 on death row who are innocent, a very high rate of error. A few final thoughts are as follows:

– the trial occurred in Monroeville, AL in the late 1980s, the home of Harper Lee, who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
– the Sheriff who helped contrive the evidence was reelected six times and just retired.
– it amazes me that law enforcement who contrive (or suppress) evidence to convict someone don’t fully comprehend that the real killer is still out there – the family of the victim deserves real justice over expedience.
– McMillan’s story is not unusual. The story highlights at the end, another death row neighbor of McMillan’s was freed thirty years later.

I have seen documentaries about Stevenson. He is smart, soft-spoken, and determined. He cares about his clients, so when he cannot prevent an execution, it is disheartening. The movie is definitely worth your time, especially with the unnecessary divisiveness going on in our country that is fueling more hate groups. The key ammunition against this is education, awareness and advocacy.

An American hero – Bryan Stevenson

Who is Bryan Stevenson you may be asking yourself? Per Wikipedia:

“Bryan A. Stevenson is an American lawyer, social justice activist, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson has challenged bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system, especially children. He has helped achieve United States Supreme Court decisions that prohibit sentencing children under 18 to death or to life imprisonment without parole.”

He is an American hero who has helped free over numerous death-row prisoners who were wrongly convicted. Some of these people should not have ever come to trial. They were guilty by being Black. The DAs did not bother with ballistics tests, even when later challenged. The juries, judge and prosecutors were almost always white.

Stevenson got a new trial which freed one man who had been on death row for 30 years. Earlier attempts years before failed because a line of DAs would not take the time do a ballistic test. The man has still not received an apology for giving up 30 years of his life for a wrongful conviction.

Per the HBO documentary “True Justice:”

“Stevenson has argued five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including one that resulted in a ban on mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 and under. He and the EJI have won reversals, relief or release from prison for more than 135 wrongly condemned death-row inmates.” 

He has now helped establish a Civil Rights museum in Montgomery, AL. Part of this museum includes several shelves of jars of soil gleaned from beneath trees where Black men were lynched. And, there are two monuments for every county in America where lynching occurred. The second monument is for the county to take back to remind us of what evil intent can do. He is strident in his view that the death penalty following a pre-determined trial outcome is a legal way to lynch someone, so he feels it is imperative to link this to the lynchings.

In the HBO documentary, Stevenson noted how we do a terrible job in our country of admitting and learning from our mistakes. Germany has many places where plaques note the atrocitues of Nazism. Here, we try to whitewash history, including the “genocide” of Native Americans, a term which is rarely used, but is apt.

We need more heroes like Stevenson. He is very earnest and speaks with a thoughtful and quiet voice. It is refreshing to see such a man where substance matters over perception.