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Reviewed by Max Dunbar

There’s an episode of the classic US prison show Oz where a new governor brings back the death penalty and sentences Jefferson Keane, a gangster serving life, as the first to die. Keane is a stone killer, but has recently seen the error of his ways and the episode becomes a reflective, almost lyrical play on life, death, regret and redemption – narrated by Augustus Hill, the show’s laconic, sometimes amused storyteller. In the last scene, Hill addresses the camera directly:

There’s this brother on death row somewheres, he checked in when he was 16. He sat there another sixteen years while the courts and lawyers argued about this and that. While he waited he painted a mural on his wall. For all those years he painted, not letting a soul see what he was up to. Finally, when he was thirty-two and had spent more life on death row than in his mama’s house, all his appeals were exhausted. He was about to die. As he was about to be let out for the final time, he finally unveiled his masterpiece. All there was were six words: Death is certain. Life is not.

Despite its hard-hitting style, Oz was not the half of it. For a land of the free, America has a great talent for making people unfree, in cruel and unusual ways.

Bryan Stevenson crunches the numbers. America has the world’s highest rate of incarceration at 2.3 million, with another six million on some kind of probation or parole supervision. ‘One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison,’ Stevenson says, ‘one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.’ There is another macabre anecdote, from the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, delivered at his Reading Agency lecture. He had been to a talk in New York about the private prison industry. When the huge companies were drawing up their blueprints, trying to work out capacity, layout and security classifications, ‘they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten and eleven year olds couldn’t read.’

Stevenson grew up in the rough and rural Delmarva Peninsula in the state of Delaware. He somehow made it to Harvard Law. But something was wrong. Big corporate law firms would turn up on campus and fly students out to New York or DC. ‘It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparing ourselves to do,’ Stevenson writes. He returned to the South and began working with a non profit organisation that represented death row and natural-life prisoners, people already destroyed by broken families, learning difficulties and mental illness, and let down by corrupt cops, clockwatching public defenders and bureaucratic, dysfunctional institutions.

Although its execution rate does not approach that of China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the major Capital-P states, America’s death penalty has made it a near-pariah in the democratic world. The process is expensive, drawn out and, often at the final moments, horribly botched: in the late 1980s, when Stevenson began his practice, a man named John Evans took fourteen minutes to die in the Alabama chair (‘An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room. Two doctors examined Mr. Evans and declared that he was not dead.’) European drug companies stopped doing business with US prisons because the drugs were being used in lethal injections – leading to the black irony of state correctional bosses getting hold of the drugs illegally… and having their prisons raided by DEA officials. The obvious problem with the death penalty (apart from the idea that the state can actually kill you: big government, surely, doesn’t get much bigger than that) is that no investigators are perfect and sometimes they get the wrong man. Stevenson spends a lot of time on his biggest case, that of Walter McMillian, convicted to death for a murder he could not possibly have committed. And when an innocent man is convicted the real offender is given a free pass.

Quite the most disturbing factor of US criminal justice is its incarceration and execution of juveniles. In a thoughtful piece on child executions in the United States, Christopher Hitchens wrote that ‘Most adults, reviewing the molten years of their own puberty, can think of at least one occasion where they really, really needed a break or a second chance, and where their lives and careers might have been literally or at least figuratively over if they hadn’t had one.’ In a chapter called ‘All God’s Children’ Stevenson looks at some of the thousands of juveniles sentenced to life without possibility of parole: written off at thirteen or fourteen, and condemned to die ungodly in an armed jailhouse. Many of these offenders – thanks to a raft of mandatory-minimum and three-strikes statutes – are doing natural life for crimes in which no one has been physically injured. The case that struck me was that of Joe Sullivan, a sexually abused street child with numerous property crime convictions. Sullivan was sentenced in 1989 for sexual battery and sent to an adult prison, where he was repeatedly raped, developed MS and attempted suicide. When Stevenson met him in 2007, he met a small, grey-haired man in a wheelchair, who asked simple questions: What is your favourite colour? Who is your favourite cartoon character? – an old man, and still a child, at thirty-one years of age.

Stevenson is relentlessly humane but never sentimental: realistic about human nature, but in a way that offers hope of change. ‘We are all broken by something,’ he says. ‘We have all hurt someone and have been hurt.’ The road to grace, he suggests, is by forswearing the kick of moral superiority and acknowledging the complexity of all human lives.

[E]ach of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done… If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer… if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others.

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Max Dunbar blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy (Scribe: London 2014). 978-1925106381, 352 pp., paperback.

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