Guest Reviewer Rating: FIVE OUT OF FIVE STARS
Best for: 18 and up
Just Inspiring. But Just Heartbreaking. Just NOT Surprising.
Guest Review by Catina Haverlock
When Bryan Stevenson, the author of this true story was asked by Rosa Parks just exactly what it was that he did, he couldn’t contain his passion for his work. He responded “Yes, ma’am. Well, I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongfully convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We’re trying to educate people to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors . . .”
Mrs. Parks leaned back smiling, “Ooooh honey. all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.”
Then Mrs. Park’s friend added, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
I have a new hero. His name is Bryan Stevenson. And his answer above sums up what this story is about. As a young law intern, his first assignment was to visit a death row inmate who had been wrongly accused and placed on death row before his make-believe trial. This story follows the agonizing plight of Walter McMillan as well as several other inmates who’d been wrongly accused, prosecuted or excessively punished for their crimes and based upon their ages. The stories are gripping, infuriating, heart wrenching and inspiring.
While the story contains some of the most inspiring moments in all of my years of reading, I also found it incredibly hard to get through – the content – not the writing (which was excellent). I wasn’t surprised to learn that our legal, court and prison systems are ripe with collusion and corruption. I learned how corrupt our pharmaceutical industries and the agencies that govern them are over 20 years ago when two of my children sustained serious vaccination injuries. So, not surprising at all that greed, dishonesty, and corruption is abundantly found in another area of our government. What DID surprise me and hurt me the most is that our prisons (or at least at the time of this story) are packed full of individuals with mental illness and extreme disabilities. As a mother of a young man with profound autism, it was all I could do to get through many of the pages. As you may imagine, those with mental illness and disability are very vulnerable in the prison system, they are confused, they don’t understand where they are and why they are there. They are often the victims of deplorable childhoods. And in prison they are the victims of reprehensible physical and sexual abuse by fellow inmates as well as prison guards and employees. There were many times I had to let this book sit for a while. But Bryan always brought me back.
Consider Bryan’s thoughts on an especially low night for him as one of his clients, Jimmy Dill was to be executed despite Bryan’s best efforts to save him. “For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear and anger. I thought of (mentions several clients). In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness and prejudice. It took me a while to sort it out but I understood that I don’t do what I do because it is required or necessary or important. I do it because I have no choice. I do what I do because I’m broken too.”
Broken and heroic, Bryan. Rarely have I been inspired as I have been inspired by you. Rarely have I respected someone’s work the way I respect yours. Thank you for your example of selflessness at its finest, compassion and empathy at their best and for the many stories and lessons on why we ALL need to show a little mercy.
There are several vivid descriptions of people being executed as well as vulnerable prisoners being sexually and physically abused.
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