Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard law student in the summer of 1983 when the book opens. After growing increasingly disillusioned by his esoteric and abstract classes, Stevenson finally discovers meaningful work when he interns for the Atlanta-based Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC), which provides legal representation to impoverished people on death row. Stevenson has come to the prison to meet his first client, Henry, to deliver the news that Henry will not be executed this year, and the SPDC is still trying to assign him a lawyer. Stevenson awkwardly blurts out apologies that he’s just a law student and not a real lawyer yet, but Henry feels relieved. Stevenson relaxes, and the two men end up talking for hours. The guard treats Henry roughly while returning him to his cell, and Henry sings a religious hymn, causing Stevenson to feel uplifted.
Upon returning to law school, Stevenson works toward his new purpose of helping death row prisoners. Stevenson then describes his own background growing up in a rural, racially segregated region in Delaware. His family was hardworking but poor. Stevenson explains that he wrote Just Mercy to shed light on mass incarceration, extreme punishment, and unfair judgment of others. He reviews grim facts about U.S. mass incarceration, juvenile justice, for-profit prisons, and racial disparity, and links the prison system to social inequities, voting rights, and massive government spending. He also points out that innocent people have been executed. After graduation, Stevenson returns to the South to represent poor prisoners. His experiences lead him to believe in redemption, justice, and compassion.
After graduating, Stevenson becomes a full-time employee at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). In his fourth year, he is assigned Walter McMillian’s case. Walter is incarcerated in Alabama, where Stevenson often works because the state lacks a public defender. Walter was born to poor sharecroppers in Monroe County, also home to Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite lacking a formal education, Walter started a successful lumber business in the 1970s, which caused suspicion among the white community. In 1986, he had a scandalous affair with a younger, soon-to-be-divorced white woman named Karen Kelly, and their relationship lead to a contentious child custody battle between Karen and her husband at which Walter was forced to testify.
Walter’s reputation suffered from his involvement with Karen. The South had a long history of laws prohibiting interracial sexual relationships, which were not struck down by the Supreme Court until 1967. Black men who broke these prohibitions were often lynched. After Walter’s court appearance, a white college student, Ronda Morrison, was murdered, and police were unable to determine the perpetrator. Karen became involved with an ex-criminal, Ralph Myers, and they were implicated in the murder of another young woman, Vickie Pittman. When questioned by the police, Ralph claimed that he, Walter, and Karen killed both young women. Even though Ralph didn’t know Walter and there was no evidence that Walter was involved in any murders, the police accepted Ralph’s story, desperate to close Ronda Morrison’s case.
Stevenson continues working at his nonprofit organization to provide legal representation to Alabamians. Meanwhile, he continues to work on many cases in various Southern states, helping families of Black people who died at the hands of the police. One night, while Stevenson is sitting in his car outside his apartment listening to music, the police arrive. As Stevenson gets out of the car, one officer draws his gun, and the other physically restrains Stevenson. They search his car without cause and call in his license until eventually letting him go. Stevenson learns that neighbors had reported a suspected burglar. He files a complaint with the police department but can’t stop thinking about the incident. Stevenson eventually meets with the deputy chief of police, who apologizes.
Stevenson’s experience with the police in his own neighborhood inspires Stevenson to begin talking to community groups about how the presumption of guilt makes people of color vulnerable to racial violence and unfair treatment, and the need for accountability from law enforcement. At one church in rural Alabama, he emotionally speaks about his own encounter. Afterward, an older Black man in a wheelchair encourages Stevenson to continue fighting for justice. The man shows his scars from taking part in various campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement, calling them medals of honor. After this encounter, Stevenson decides to open an Alabama office instead of settling in Atlanta, as he originally planned.
Chapter Three returns to Walter McMillian, whom Ralph Myers accused of sexual assault, in addition to the murders, after an officer suggested the idea. Sheriff Tom Tate arrested Walter for sodomy, all the while taunting him with racial slurs and threats. Since Ralph’s story about the events on the day of Ronda Morrison’s murder made little sense, law officers got Bill Hooks, a jailhouse informant, to corroborate Walter’s involvement by saying he saw Walter’s truck at the location of Ronda’s murder. Law enforcement finally charged Walter even though he had an alibi on the day of the murder: He spent that day at his home with family and neighbors. Still, Sheriff Tate refused to release Walter, even after Ralph recanted his story.
Both Ralph and Walter were placed in pretrial detention on death row, a move that was illegal. At the time, Alabama’s death row in Holman Correctional Facility held about one hundred prisoners in tiny, windowless cells. When Walter arrived, prisoners were talking about a recent botched execution in the electric chair. Walter initially thought that he would be released once his alibi checked out, but as the weeks went by, he grew fearful and worried. His family hired two civil rights attorneys, but they failed to persuade officials to release Walter. Other prisoners told Walter to file a complaint, a task that was beyond the abilities of barely literate Walter.
The second part of Chapter Three explains that in another section of the prison, Ralph broke down and called Sheriff Tate, offering to testify against Walter to get off death row. With Ralph as a primary witness, the district attorney, Ted Pearson, believed he could convict Walter and scheduled the trial. Walter likely would be judged by a predominately white jury even though Monroe County had a high Black population. Stevenson explains the history of prosecutors excluding Black jurors despite Supreme Court rulings against this practice. When Walter’s lawyers filed a motion to change the trial venue, the district attorney did not object, but the judge selected a county with a small Black population. Still, based on the evidence, Walter didn’t believe he would be convicted. Ralph balked at testifying for a few months, so the trial was rescheduled for more than a year after Walter was sent to death row.
The narrative then shifts to after the trial, when Walter has been convicted of capital murder. As he is being returned to death row, he reflects on his trial. The jury was almost all white. Ralph and the informant Bill Hooks gave their testimony, and a third man identified Walter’s truck at the murder location. Walter’s lawyers only called three witnesses to prove Walter was at home at the time of the murder. One white man who had stopped by Walter’s house claimed that it was a different day. Three hours after beginning deliberation, the jury declared Walter guilty.
In 1989, Stevenson opens the new nonprofit legal services center in Alabama, later named the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He faces numerous obstacles with staffing and funding but perseveres. Almost immediately, Stevenson attempts to prevent the executions of two men—Michael Lindsey and Horace Dunkins—but is unsuccessful. Lindsey was sentenced to life without parole, but the judge overrode the jury and changed it to a death sentence. In Alabama, this practice is allowed, and judges often override life sentences to appear tough on crime to voters. Dunkins suffered from an intellectual disability, and at the time of his execution, the Supreme Court had not yet banned the practice of executing condemned people with disabilities.
Stevenson then receives a call from Herbert Richardson, another man on death row facing imminent execution. Herbert is a veteran who experienced post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Vietnam, which exacerbated issues stemming from childhood abuse. After his girlfriend broke up with him, Herbert, obsessed with getting her back, came up with a misguided plan. He set off a small bomb on her porch with the intention of saving her from the bomb, but instead her niece was killed by the explosion. Herbert was soon arrested, and the all-white jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death. Herbert’s lawyer refused to appeal the case, and Herbert has spent eleven years on death row.
Stevenson knows he’s unlikely to save Herbert’s life because Supreme Court rulings have made it harder to block executions. Stevenson identifies several issues: Herbert’s case was not a capital murder case; his past trauma should have excluded him from the death penalty; and the death sentence wasn’t imposed with careful consideration. Stevenson obtains a court hearing to present evidence about Herbert’s intent, but the judge refuses the petition. At the hearing, Stevenson meets the victim’s family, who do not believe Herbert should be executed. Stevenson appeals for a stay to the Supreme Court, which is denied only hours before the execution.
Stevenson rushes to the prison to wait with Herbert and his family. When the prison officer comes for Herbert, Herbert’s wife refuses to leave, angering the waiting officials. Stevenson starts to hum a hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” that Herbert requested be played at the execution, which calms Herbert’s wife. Stevenson persuades her to let Herbert go. Stevenson joins Herbert in the death chamber where the men pray together, and then Herbert is strapped into the electric chair. The experience causes Stevenson to reflect on the inhumanity of preparing someone to be killed and makes him even more determined to find staff and resources to help condemned prisoners.
Stevenson visits Walter’s large, poor family on his way home from the prison. Family members describe how hard Walter’s conviction is because he was with them at the time of the murder and because it is not in Walter’s nature to commit murder. Stevenson explains that the trial was constructed on lies, and he thinks of how the entire Black community of Monroeville is suffering from the injustice done to Walter. Stevenson shares details of the appeal process with Walter’s family.
On his drive home, Stevenson reflects on a story by W.E.B. Du Bois in which a Black community pools their money to send off a young man to school to become a teacher for their children. Feeling empowered by his education, the young man ends up disrupting the racial order and faces certain death at the hands of a lynch mob. Stevenson has always related to the story, seeing himself as the hope of his own marginalized community. After meeting Walter’s family, he also relates to how such an unjust ending as Walter’s impacts others: Walter’s conviction has burdened his entire community. Stevenson becomes consumed with Walter’s complicated case, and the two men become close friends.
Soon after Stevenson’s meeting with Walter’s family, Stevenson receives a call from Darnell Houston, a young Black man who worked with Bill Hooks. Darnell tells Stevenson that on the day of the Morrison murder, Hooks was at work with him. Stevenson considers refiling Darnell’s affidavit as new evidence necessitating a new trial before continuing the appeal process. Before he can do so, however, Stevenson gets a call from Darnell from jail: Darnell was arrested for perjury based on his story. Stevenson meets with District Attorney Tom Chapman. Stevenson quickly determines that Chapman is convinced of Walter’s guilt and brings up Darnell’s perjury charge, which is illegal. Chapman says since the judge denied the motion to reopen the case, he will drop the perjury charge. Chapman explains that he doesn’t care that Darnell’s story proves Bill Hooks lied, and to Stevenson’s dismay, he continues to defend what happened at Walter’s trial. Stevenson then talks to Darnell, who expresses fears about speaking up again. Stevenson realizes that it will be hard to prove Walter’s innocence when any witnesses can be intimidated by the law. He decides to focus on the appeal.
Stevenson’s attention turns to fourteen-year-old Charlie, a good student who killed his mother’s abusive boyfriend and is being held in adult county jail. Before meeting Charlie, Stevenson reviews the incident. One night, the boyfriend, George, came home drunk and struck Charlie’s mother, who fell to the ground unconscious. Unable to stop his mother’s bleeding, Charlie worried she would die. He went into the bedroom where George slept to call 911, but instead got George’s gun and shot him. When he returned to the kitchen, his mother had revived. Stevenson learns that George was a respected police officer and the prosecutor persuaded the judge that Charlie should be tried as an adult.
At the jail, Stevenson tries different ways to get Charlie to speak, but the boy is completely disconnected and silent. Finally, Charlie begins to cry and tells Stevenson he was raped by multiple men in jail each night. Stevenson promises to get him out of the jail. He immediately goes to the sheriff and the judge, who move Charlie to a juvenile facility. Stevenson gets the shooting transferred to juvenile court, meaning Charlie will probably be released before turning eighteen. Stevenson continues to visit Charlie and talks about him and incarcerated children at a church group. An older white couple start a correspondence with Charlie and become family to him. They help him get his high school equivalency degree and pay for college.
Walter’s appeal has been denied. Stevenson feels genuinely surprised because he had presented valid arguments questioning the evidence and trial itself. He continues investigating the case, helped by a new hire for the nonprofit organization, Michael O’Connor. Together, Stevenson and Michael uncover financial records indicating that Sheriff Tate paid Bill Hooks for his false testimony about Walter’s whereabouts and got charges and fines against Bill dismissed, as well as several other witnesses confirming elements of Walter’s story.
Stevenson receives a call from Ralph Myers asking him to visit. At the prison, Ralph tells Stevenson and Michael that he’s been attending therapy and knows he must right what he has done. He admits that he lied about Walter killing Ronda Morrison and that numerous law enforcement officials were involved in coercing him to give false testimony. Ralph accuses other officials of involvement in the case. He also says that he murdered Vickie Pittman on order from another sheriff and that the police are connected with drug dealing and money laundering. The lawyers follow up on Walter’s leads and visit Karen Kelly, Walter’s former girlfriend, who asserts that Ralph had never met Walter before Ronda’s murder and that Sheriff Tate kept asking her why she had sex with a Black man.
Stevenson and Michael decide they need to learn more about Vickie Pittman’s murder, so they arrange to meet with Vickie’s aunts, Mozelle and Onzelle, who share their own suspicions about their brother—Vickie’s father, Vic—and local law enforcement. They also bring up the fact that they were not helped by any victims’ rights groups. To the reader, Stevenson explains the history of how victims in criminal cases came to be seen as a group deserving rights with a larger role in the criminal justice process. However, poor and minority victims usually received worse treatment or consideration than others.
Stevenson requests all the files from Walter’s case through a petition that would give them the right to present any new evidence they discovered in a trial court. The Alabama Supreme Court, to which they have already appealed, agrees to postpone that process, indicating that something is amiss with the case. Stevenson and Michael meet with the district attorney, Tom Chapman, along with other law enforcement officers involved in Walter’s case, including Sheriff Tate, and receive the files. Back in the office, they begin to review the documents and decide to talk to the FBI.
Chapter Eight opens with a poem by Ian E. Manuel called “Uncried Tears.” The chapter features stories of teenagers from impoverished backgrounds who were given life sentences for their crimes. At fourteen years old, Trina Garnett accidentally set fire to a house, causing two children to die of asphyxiation. In prison, she was raped and impregnated by a correctional officer. She developed severe physical and mental illnesses. Ian Manuel, the author of the chapter’s opening poem, was thirteen years old when he shot a woman during an attempted robbery. He was placed in solitary confinement where he started to cut himself, but while in prison he also educated himself through books. Antonio Nuñez was also thirteen years old when he was shot in the stomach and watched his brother get killed. Suffering from this trauma, he got involved in a kidnapping scheme that lead to his imprisonment for the attempted murder of police officers.
Stevenson then shares the history of the criminalization of juveniles. Before the 1980s, generally only Black children charged with crimes against white people were treated as adults, reflecting Southern racial politics. Ill-conceived concern over juvenile “super-predators,” however, led states to lower or eliminate ages for trying children as adults and take away judicial discretion. Years after their original convictions, Stevenson connects with Trina, Ian, and Antonio and tries to help them. He uses photographs of Ian in a report intended to draw attention to the children sentenced to die in prison.
Chapter 9 opens on the day of Walter’s hearing where Stevenson and Michael will present Ralph Myers’s new testimony. They arrive at the courtroom and find dozens of Black community members supporting Walter. Stevenson explains that the state’s case hinged entirely on Ralph’s testimony, but Ralph lied. On the stand, Ralph testifies that Walter did not kill Ronda Morrison and holds firm under cross-examination. Stevenson calls more witnesses to refute other parts of Ralph’s original story. The judge appears engaged and concerned, and Walter feels excited and Walter’s family grows hopeful.
The next morning, Stevenson finds the Black supporters standing outside the courtroom, apparently barred from entering. The courtroom is already half-filled with older white people as well as a metal detector and a police officer with a German shepherd dog. After Stevenson angrily insists that Walter’s supporters be let into the courtroom, the deputy begins letting them in, but there are not enough seats for everyone. One older woman, Mrs. Williams—who is chosen as one of the representatives for the Black community—is unable to enter the courtroom because the guard dog brings back memories of attacks against Black people who marched for civil rights. Despite the bad beginning, the trial ensues, and Stevenson elicits testimony from health care workers confirming that Ralph told them he was forced to testify against Walter.
On the third day of Walter’s trial, the white supporters, who seemed confused by the health workers’ testimony, don’t attend, but the police officer has returned with the German shepherd dog. Mrs. Williams finds the courage to get past the dog this time, and before the hearing begins, she announces several times to the courtroom that she is here. Stevenson understands that her words mean that she feels called to be part of the fight for justice.
On the final day of the trial, Stevenson questions Ralph’s fellow prisoners to confirm Ralph’s claim that he was pressured to give false testimony. As his final piece of evidence, Stevenson presents multiple tapes of law enforcement officials threatening Ralph if he did not frame Walter for the murder. None of these recordings had been disclosed to Walter’s previous attorneys as the law required. The state’s attorney puts on no rebuttal case. The judge asks both sides to submit written briefs outlining and defending what they think the ruling should be, and the hearing ends. On the way back to Montgomery, Stevenson and Michael stop at the beach. They discuss how their opponents will react poorly to the new evidence—maybe even threatening them—but reaffirm their commitment to freeing Walter.
Stevenson recounts the history of how mentally ill people were shifted out of prisons and into state mental hospitals and then out of institutions entirely. By the late 1990s, many mentally ill people were no longer receiving treatment and ended up committing offenses that landed them back in jails, which were not equipped for their needs. Stevenson takes the case of Avery Jenkins, a mentally ill prisoner on death row for murder. Upon Stevenson’s arrival at the prison to meet Avery, a pro-Confederate, racist prison guard forces Stevenson to submit to a strip search, even though strip searches are not a requirement for lawyers. After this humiliation, Stevenson meets Avery, who is obsessed with having a chocolate milkshake.
Avery spent his childhood in abusive foster homes, has cognitive impairments, and suffers psychotic episodes. At Avery’s hearing, Stevenson presents evidence ignored by previous lawyers about his mental illness and his foster parents’ inability to cope with his needs. A month later, Stevenson goes to the prison to visit Avery and again encounters the pro-Confederate guard. To his surprise, the guard is respectful and explains that he listened to every word Stevenson said at Avery’s hearing. The guard reveals that he was a foster child too, and hearing Avery’s history made him realize how angry he still is about the abuse he suffered. He thanks Stevenson for the work he’s doing and says that after Avery’s trial, he bought Avery a chocolate milkshake. Stevenson wins the new trial and gets Avery placed in a mental health facility.
Amid bomb threats to the office, Stevenson receives the judge’s ruling from Walter’s hearing: No relief is granted because Ralph was perjuring himself at either the trial or the hearing. Stevenson notes that the judge addressed none of the legal claims or the witness statements aside from Ralph’s testimony. Stevenson remains optimistic about their chances in the Alabama appeals court, however, because his organization has won many reversals on death penalty cases.
The threats to his office make Stevenson realize he needs the community to understand that Walter is innocent, not a dangerous drug dealer as portrayed in local papers. While he needs to be careful because most people in the South are wary of national media, Stevenson allows 60 Minutes to do a piece on Walter that summarizes the new evidence that Stevenson had uncovered. The segment creates doubt in the community about Walter’s guilt and brings up uncomfortable questions about racism in law enforcement. While District Attorney Chapman dismisses the idea that racial bias played any role in Walter’s prosecution, Stevenson later finds out that privately, Chapman ordered a new investigation into Ronda Morrison’s murder. The agents from the Alabama Bureau of Investigations quickly determine that Walter had nothing to do with her death.
Stevenson and the Alabama Bureau of Investigations learn that they both identified the same suspect as Ronda Morrison’s real murderer. Stevenson has communicated with this man, and he shares his information with the investigators. Stevenson wants to get Walter out of prison immediately, but the attorney general wants to keep Walter in prison until a new arrest is made. Stevenson calls the office to ask for concession of a legal error, which could get Walter released sooner. Instead, the attorney general asks the court to put a stay on Walter’s appeal while they investigate, which Stevenson opposes.
Less than six weeks later, the court invalidates Walter’s conviction and orders a new trial. Stevenson doesn’t think the state will retry him and promises to get him home as soon as possible.
Stevenson calls District Attorney Chapman and says he is going to file a motion to dismiss all charges against Walter, which the State joins. Walter’s wife, Minnie, worries about Walter returning home after the turmoil of the past six years, and wants him to stay in Montgomery instead. At the hearing, the judge quickly grants the motion, and Walter is free. Stevenson and Walter answer a few questions from the press and then go to the prison to pick up Water’s belongings, where they are followed by a big crowd of friends, family, media, and curious community members. The men in prison all congratulate Walter on his freedom.
Chapter Twelve introduces Marsha Colbey, a poor white woman who lived with her husband and large family in a FEMA trailer. She got pregnant and gave birth to a stillborn baby, whom the family named Timothy and buried. A neighbor noticed that Marsha was no longer pregnant but had no baby, and called the authorities. The forensic pathologist ruled that the baby was born alive, and prosecutors charged Marsha with capital murder.
Stevenson explains that poor women with inadequate healthcare tend to experience higher stillbirth rates, but women are being blamed for these deaths. At Marsha’s trial, many partial jurors were seated, and despite a lack of credible evidence, Marsha was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at Tutwiler, an overcrowded and dangerous prison for women staffed with guards who regularly raped and abused the inmates. The majority of women housed with Marsha at Tutwiler had been convicted of nonviolent and other minor crimes, and Stevenson notes that their imprisonment put their own children at risk. Stevenson represents Marsha and gets her a new trial. Eventually, he also wins a settlement for Marsha and a release from prison ten years after she was initially imprisoned. In 2013, Stevenson chooses Marsha as one of the honorees at his annual benefit dinners in New York City.
After Walter’s release from prison in 1993, Stevenson and Walter give many interviews and travel to legal conferences to speak about the death penalty. Throughout the decade, executions are on the rise. Walter, separated from his wife Minnie, tries living in a few different places but wants to return home. Stevenson files a civil lawsuit on his behalf, hoping to get money to compensate for everything Walter lost in prison, but law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges enjoy special immunity—the officials who wrongly framed Walter cannot be sued. Walter only gets a few hundred thousand dollars.
Walter uses the settlement money to restart his logging business, but after an injury, he turns to selling scrap metal instead. Stevenson starts to teach at New York University, and Walter comes to talk with his students each year about his experience being wrongly convicted. In 1994, the Equal Justice Initiative faces new financial pressures. Meanwhile, Stevenson learns that he has won a human rights award to be presented in Sweden. A film crew interviews Stevenson and also plans to interview Walter. In Sweden, Stevenson talks to a group of appreciative high school kids. In his hotel, he turns on the TV and sees Walter’s interview. At the end of the segment, Walter becomes uncharacteristically emotional, talking about how rough his ordeal has been.
Chapter Fourteen introduces Joe Sullivan, who was thirteen years old when he burgled a house with two other boys. The owner of the house was raped the same day in an unrelated incident, and the blame for the rape incorrectly fell on Joe. Joe had intellectual disabilities and came from an abusive family. His lawyer provided inadequate defense in court, and Joe was sentenced to life without parole and sent to an adult prison, where he was repeatedly assaulted. Joe became suicidal and wheelchair-bound from multiple sclerosis. Joe had spent eighteen years in prison when Stevenson challenged his sentence as unconstitutional.
Stevenson describes some of the young prisoners he has worked with, including Evan Miller, who at the age of fourteen was convicted of capital murder. Evan grew up abused and neglected and plagued by suicide attempts. Evan reveals to Stevenson that he couldn’t understand the violent behaviors of his youth. Stevenson then recalls his own childhood experience with violent crime, when his grandfather was murdered during a home robbery. Only now does he understand that criminal juveniles, who generally grew up amid horrific abuse and neglect, lack the maturity and impulse control of adults.
While the Florida courts reject his argument that imprisoning someone under the age of fourteen for life without parole for a non-homicide offense constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court agrees to review the case, generating national media attention. Stevenson’s argument focuses on constitutionality and morality. While awaiting the ruling, Stevenson visits Joe, who reads aloud a poem he wrote that ends with the affirmation that he, Joe, is a good person. Stevenson is surprised by the joy Joe has, despite his tragic life circumstances.
Walter is featured in a documentary about the death penalty, which Stevenson shows at the office. Walter gets very anxious at the presentation, so they go to a doctor, who diagnoses Walter with advancing dementia. Walter’s relatives take turns caring for him, but eventually he moves into a facility. This situation comes at a time when the Equal Justice Initiative has agreed to represent anyone on death row facing execution. Stevenson visits Walter in the nursing home, and Walter, in his dementia, thinks he is on death row and asks Stevenson to get him out. Stevenson talks about the increased rate of executions in Alabama, which bucks a national trend.
During this time, Stevenson also works to get condemned children out of prison. He works on the case of Jimmy Dill, who suffers from an intellectual disability and was abused as a child. Jimmy shot someone who died nine months later and, due to poor legal representation, Jimmy was sentenced to death. Stevenson is unsuccessful in blocking his execution, but Jimmy, a terrible stutterer, still calls Stevenson to express his gratitude for trying to save his life. Stevenson begins to cry as a memory from childhood comes flooding back. Stevenson remembers laughing at a boy who stuttered and his mother making him apologize and hug the boy and say that he loved him. The boy said that he loved Stevenson, too. In the present, Jimmy tells Stevenson he loves him and everyone at the Equal Justice Initiative before he ends the call.
Stevenson listens to Jimmy stuttering on the phone before his execution and thinks that despite how the world has treated him, Jimmy retains his humanity. Stevenson doesn’t understand how so many people can be involved in killing vulnerable people and feels overwhelmed by this lack of compassion. Stevenson realizes that he’s surrounded by brokenness: clients broken by circumstances and a broken justice system. He considers quitting but eventually understands that he does this work because he is broken, too, from years of fighting injustice. Because Stevenson recognizes this fact, he also creates a need for mercy. He believes that if people could acknowledge brokenness, they would be more merciful to other broken people and not want harsh punishment for the most vulnerable.
Stevenson recounts meeting the civil rights activist Rosa Parks with her friends. During their meeting, Stevenson told Parks about the Equal Justice Initiative and his work, and Parks responded that he must be tired. Another woman told him to be brave. The scene returns to the present with Stevenson reminding himself to be brave. He sees an email invitation to speak to students in a poor school district to give them hope and inspiration, and he accepts. Driving home, Stevenson thinks about the stuttering boy who showed him mercy that he did not deserve. He reflects that unexpected mercy can break the cycle of suffering and provide healing.
In 2010, the Supreme Court rules that sentencing children convicted of non-homicides to life without parole is unconstitutional and, two years later, extends that to children convicted of homicides. The Equal Justice Initiative sees increased success in its death penalty cases, and Alabama sharply reduces its executions. Nationwide, mass incarceration is also slowing down. Stevenson talks about the four institutions that he believes have shaped the country’s approach to race and justice: slavery; the post-Reconstruction era of terror, which reinforced the racial hierarchy; Jim Crow and legalized racial segregation; and mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets people of color.
As the Equal Justice Initiative grows, staff members work on hundreds of appeals, but Stevenson prioritizes the resentencing hearings of two men—Joshua Carter and Robert Caston—who have been incarcerated for almost fifty years each. After several delays, the lawyers present their case for Carter. When the judge grants his immediate release, the entire courtroom breaks out in applause. Caston also gets released immediately. Afterward, Stevenson meets an older Black woman who asks to give him a hug. She often comes to the courthouse to help people because of the terrible pain she felt when her grandson was murdered and his killers were sentenced to life in prison. A stranger provided comfort, and now she does the same for others. She says she catches the metaphorical stones people cast at one another, even though catching stones makes you both sorrowful and happy.
The epilogue explains that Walter died in 2013 after injuring himself in a fall. Stevenson reflects on a conversation with Walter about how being on death row makes you think about dying all the time. Walter thought execution was wrong because it was unnatural. In his eulogy at Walter’s funeral, Stevenson says that Walter became like a brother to him, but also taught him why it was so important to reform the racially and economically biased criminal justice system. Stevenson learned that the real question about the death penalty is not whether someone deserves to die, but whether we as a society deserve to kill. Walter taught Stevenson that mercy should be intertwined with hope and given to the undeserving. On his drive home, Stevenson hopes that he can continue to help people.
The postscript provides an update on other clients and issues. Anthony Ray Hinton, imprisoned for nearly thirty years, was released in 2015 after the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors had to consider evidence proving his innocence. Trina Garnett became eligible for parole and Antonio Nuñez and Ian Manuel for release. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) continues to produce reports on significant racial issues and opened a museum and memorial. As executive director of EJI, Stevenson works with his staff to continue to represent people on death row and those unfairly incarcerated. In 2019, EJI won a Supreme Court case that banned the execution of people with dementia or neurological disease. Stevenson continues to hope that we can all do better in