Just Mercy

Just Mercy

Reading Bryan Stevenson’s remarkable autobiography about his work as a nonprofit lawyer defending death row inmates in the south, we turn to lawyers in their roles as professionals, as heroes and villains, and as ordinary people. We ask how the life of a lawyer can satisfy both professional and personal values, as the two can conflict in the day-to-day work of legal professionals. You may have already experienced similar conflict when the law has clashed with your personal sensibilities about right and wrong.

The book also investigates broader questions about the meaning of justice, mercy and punishment, especially as they relate to incarceration and the death penalty. Stevenson’s writing exposes racial and economic injustice among other inequalities in our criminal court system, particularly those that affect African-Americans, cognitively impaired, juvenile and impoverished defendants. We, too, will discuss what justice and mercy mean and how they interact, using Stevenson’s story for context.

Stevenson writes compelling about the need for us to acknowledge our own “brokenness” when considering justice for those enmeshed in our legal system, especially those who come from poverty and other disadvantages.

As Stevenson so eloquently puts it:

“. . . [b]eing broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen, but our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, and the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. 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. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”

Finally, Stevenson’s book is an ideal example of nonfiction writing coupled with narrative art, style and personality. We can learn much about effective, persuasive writing from his example. As one example, Stevenson’s opening line, “I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man” displays the common ingredients of most effective story beginnings – character, conflict and arch. Studying these ingredients and how to use them in our own writing occupies us for much of our time together. We’ll also examine how two Supreme Court Justices deploy similar techniques in their own legal writings.


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