Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption
Just Mercy is a work of nonfiction. Some names and identifying details have been changed.
Copyright © 2014 by Bryan Stevenson
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin
Random House Company, New York.
SPIEGEL & GRAU and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-8129-9453-7
Jacket design: Alex Merto
Jacket photograph: © Martin Barraud/Getty Images
Love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.
EINHOLD IEBUHR Contents
Introduction: Higher Ground
Chapter One: Mockingbird Players
Chapter Two: Stand
Chapter Three: Trials and Tribulation
Chapter Four: The Old Rugged Cross
Chapter Five: Of the Coming of John
Chapter Six: Surely Doomed
Chapter Seven: Justice Denied
Chapter Eight: All God’s Children
Chapter Nine: I’m Here
Chapter Ten: Mitigation
Chapter Eleven: I’ll Fly Away
Chapter Twelve: Mother, Mother
Chapter Thirteen: Recovery
Chapter Fourteen: Cruel and Unusual
Chapter Fifteen: Broken
Chapter Sixteen: The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow
About the Author Introduction
I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man. In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old student
at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and
worried that I was in over my head. I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prison
—and had certainly never been to death row. When I learned that I would be visiting this
prisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show.
Georgia’s death row is in a prison outside of Jackson, a remote town in a rural part of the
state. I drove there by myself, heading south on I-75 from Atlanta, my heart pounding harder
the closer I got. I didn’t really know anything about capital punishment and hadn’t even
taken a class in criminal procedure yet. I didn’t have a basic grasp of the complex appeals
process that shaped death penalty litigation, a process that would in time become as familiar
to me as the back of my hand. When I signed up for this internship, I hadn’t given much
thought to the fact that I would actually be meeting condemned prisoners. To be honest, I
didn’t even know if I wanted to be a lawyer. As the miles ticked by on those rural roads, the
more convinced I became that this man was going to be very disappointed to see me.
I studied philosophy in college and didn’t realize until my senior year that no one would pay
me to philosophize when I graduated. My frantic search for a “post-graduation plan” led me
to law school mostly because other graduate programs required you to know something about
your field of study to enroll; law schools, it seemed, didn’t require you to know anything. At
Harvard, I could study law while pursuing a graduate degree in public policy at the Kennedy
School of Government, which appealed to me. I was uncertain about what I wanted to do
with my life, but I knew it would have something to do with the lives of the poor, America’s
history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another. It
would have something to do with the things I’d already seen in life so far and wondered
about, but I couldn’t really put it together in a way that made a career path clear.
Not long after I started classes at Harvard I began to worry I’d made the wrong choice.
Coming from a small college in Pennsylvania, I felt very fortunate to have been admitted, but by the end of my first year I’d grown disillusioned. At the time, Harvard Law School was a
pretty intimidating place, especially for a twenty-one-year-old. Many of the professors used
the Socratic method—direct, repetitive, and adversarial questioning—which had the
incidental effect of humiliating unprepared students. The courses seemed esoteric and
disconnected from the race and poverty issues that had motivated me to consider the law in
the first place.
Many of the students already had advanced degrees or had worked as paralegals with
prestigious law firms. I had none of those credentials. I felt vastly less experienced and
worldly than my fellow students. When law firms showed up on campus and began
interviewing students a month after classes started, my classmates put on expensive suits and
signed up so that they could receive “fly-outs” to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or
Washington, D.C. It was a complete mystery to me what exactly we were all busily preparing
ourselves to do. I had never even met a lawyer before starting law school.
I spent the summer after my first year in law school working with a juvenile justice project
in Philadelphia and taking advanced calculus courses at night to prepare for my next year at
the Kennedy School. After I started the public policy program in September, I still felt
disconnected. The curriculum was extremely quantitative, focused on figuring out how to
maximize benefits and minimize costs, without much concern for what those benefits
achieved and the costs created. While intellectually stimulating, decision theory,
econometrics, and similar courses left me feeling adrift. But then, suddenly, everything came
I discovered that the law school offered an unusual one-month intensive course on race and
poverty litigation taught by Betsy Bartholet, a law professor who had worked as an attorney
with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Unlike most courses, this one took students off campus,
requiring them to spend the month with an organization doing social justice work. I eagerly
signed up, and so in December 1983 I found myself on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where I
was scheduled to spend a few weeks working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee
I hadn’t been able to afford a direct flight to Atlanta, so I had to change planes in Charlotte,
North Carolina, and that’s where I met Steve Bright, the director of the SPDC, who was flying
back to Atlanta after the holidays. Steve was in his mid-thirties and had a passion and
certainty that seemed the direct opposite of my ambivalence. He’d grown up on a farm in
Kentucky and ended up in Washington, D.C., after finishing law school. He was a brilliant
trial lawyer at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and had just been
recruited to take over the SPDC, whose mission was to assist condemned people on death row
in Georgia. He showed none of the disconnect between what he did and what he believed
that I’d seen in so many of my law professors. When we met he warmly wrapped me in a full-
body hug, and then we started talking. We didn’t stop till we’d reached Atlanta.
“Bryan,” he said at some point during our short flight, “capital punishment means ‘them
without the capital get the punishment.’ We can’t help people on death row without help
from people like you.”
I was taken aback by his immediate belief that I had something to offer. He broke down the
issues with the death penalty simply but persuasively, and I hung on every word, completely
engaged by his dedication and charisma. “I just hope you’re not expecting anything too fancy while you’re here,” he said.
“Oh, no,” I assured him. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with you.”
“Well, ‘opportunity’ isn’t necessarily the first word people think of when they think about
doing work with us. We live kind of simply, and the hours are pretty intense.”
“That’s no problem for me.”
“Well, actually, we might even be described as living less than simply. More like living
poorly—maybe even barely living, struggling to hang on, surviving on the kindness of
strangers, scraping by day by day, uncertain of the future.”
I let slip a concerned look, and he laughed.
“I’m just kidding … kind of.”
He moved on to other subjects, but it was clear that his heart and his mind were aligned
with the plight of the condemned and those facing unjust treatment in jails and prisons. It
was deeply affirming to meet someone whose work so powerfully animated his life.
There were just a few attorneys working at the SPDC when I arrived that winter. Most of
them were former criminal defense lawyers from Washington who had come to Georgia in
response to a growing crisis: Death row prisoners couldn’t get lawyers. In their thirties, men
and women, black and white, these lawyers were comfortable with one another in a way that
reflected a shared mission, shared hope, and shared stress about the challenges they faced.
After years of prohibition and delay, executions were again taking place in the Deep South,
and most of the people crowded on death row had no lawyers and no right to counsel. There
was a growing fear that people would soon be killed without ever having their cases reviewed
by skilled counsel. We were getting frantic calls every day from people who had no legal
assistance but whose dates of execution were on the calendar and approaching fast. I’d never
heard voices so desperate.
When I started my internship, everyone was extremely kind to me, and I felt immediately
at home. The SPDC was located in downtown Atlanta in the Healey Building, a sixteen-story
Gothic Revival structure built in the early 1900s that was in considerable decline and losing
tenants. I worked in a cramped circle of desks with two lawyers and did clerical work,
answering phones and researching legal questions for staff. I was just getting settled into my
office routine when Steve asked me to go to death row to meet with a condemned man whom
no one else had time to visit. He explained that the man had been on the row for over two
years and that they didn’t yet have a lawyer to take his case; my job was to convey to this
man one simple message: You will not be killed in the next year.
I drove through farmland and wooded areas of rural Georgia, rehearsing what I would say
when I met this man. I practiced my introduction over and over.
“Hello, my name is Bryan. I’m a student with the …” No. “I’m a law student with …” No.
“My name is Bryan Stevenson. I’m a legal intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense
Committee, and I’ve been instructed to inform you that you will not be executed soon.” “You
can’t be executed soon.” “You are not at risk of execution anytime soon.” No.
I continued practicing my presentation until I pulled up to the intimidating barbed-wire
fence and white guard tower of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center. Around the
office we just called it “Jackson,” so seeing the facility’s actual name on a sign was jarring—it
sounded clinical, even therapeutic. I parked and found my way to the prison entrance and walked inside the main building with its dark corridors and gated hallways, where metal bars
barricaded every access point. The interior eliminated any doubt that this was a hard place.
I walked down a tunneled corridor to the legal visitation area, each step echoing ominously
across the spotless tiled floor. When I told the visitation officer that I was a paralegal sent to
meet with a death row prisoner, he looked at me suspiciously. I was wearing the only suit I
owned, and we could both see that it had seen better days. The officer’s eyes seemed to linger
long and hard over my driver’s license before he tilted his head toward me to speak.
“You’re not local.”
It was more of a statement than a question.
“No, sir. Well, I’m working in Atlanta.” After calling the warden’s office to confirm that my
visit had been properly scheduled, he finally admitted me, brusquely directing me to the
small room where the visit would take place. “Don’t get lost in here; we don’t promise to
come and find you,” he warned.
The visitation room was twenty feet square with a few stools bolted to the floor. Everything
in the room was made of metal and secured. In front of the stools, wire mesh ran from a small
ledge up to a ceiling twelve feet high. The room was an empty cage until I walked into it. For
family visits, inmates and visitors had to be on opposite sides of the mesh interior wall; they
spoke to one another through the wires of the mesh. Legal visits, on the other hand, were
“contact visits”—the two of us would be on the same side of the room to permit more
privacy. The room was small and, although I knew it couldn’t be true, it felt like it was
getting smaller by the second. I began worrying again about my lack of preparation. I’d
scheduled to meet with the client for one hour, but I wasn’t sure how I’d fill even fifteen
minutes with what I knew. I sat down on one of the stools and waited. After fifteen minutes
of growing anxiety, I finally heard the clanging of chains on the other side of the door.
The man who walked in seemed even more nervous than I was. He glanced at me, his face
screwed up in a worried wince, and he quickly averted his gaze when I looked back. He
didn’t move far from the room’s entrance, as if he didn’t really want to enter the visitation
room. He was a young, neatly groomed African American man with short hair—clean-shaven,
medium frame and build—wearing bright, clean prison whites. He looked immediately
familiar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with, friends from school, people I played sports or
music with, someone I’d talk to on the street about the weather. The guard slowly unchained
him, removing his handcuffs and the shackles around his ankles, and then locked eyes with
me and told me I had one hour. The officer seemed to sense that both the prisoner and I were
nervous and to take some pleasure in our discomfort, grinning at me before turning on his
heel and leaving the room. The metal door banged loudly behind him and reverberated
through the small space.
The condemned man didn’t come any closer, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked
over and offered him my hand. He shook it cautiously. We sat down and he spoke first.
“I’m Henry,” he said.
“I’m very sorry” were the first words I blurted out. Despite all my preparations and
rehearsed remarks, I couldn’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly.
“I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, uh, okay, I don’t really know, uh, I’m just a law student,
I’m not a real lawyer.… I’m so sorry I can’t tell you very much, but I don’t know very much.”
The man looked at me worriedly. “Is everything all right with my case?” “Oh, yes, sir. The lawyers at SPDC sent me down to tell you that they don’t have a lawyer
yet.… I mean, we don’t have a lawyer for you yet, but you’re not at risk of execution anytime
in the next year.… We’re working on finding you a lawyer, a real lawyer, and we hope the
lawyer will be down to see you in the next few months. I’m just a law student. I’m really
happy to help, I mean, if there’s something I can do.”
The man interrupted my chatter by quickly grabbing my hands.
“I’m not going to have an execution date anytime in the next year?”
“No, sir. They said it would be at least a year before you get an execution date.” Those
words didn’t sound very comforting to me. But Henry just squeezed my hands tighter and
“Thank you, man. I mean, really, thank you! This is great news.” His shoulders unhunched,
and he looked at me with intense relief in his eyes.
“You are the first person I’ve met in over two years after coming to death row who is not
another death row prisoner or a death row guard. I’m so glad you’re here, and I’m so glad to
get this news.” He exhaled loudly and seemed to relax.
“I’ve been talking to my wife on the phone, but I haven’t wanted her to come and visit me
or bring the kids because I was afraid they’d show up and I’d have an execution date. I just
don’t want them here like that. Now I’m going to tell them they can come and visit. Thank
I was astonished that he was so happy. I relaxed, too, and we began to talk. It turned out
that we were exactly the same age. Henry asked me questions about myself, and I asked him
about his life. Within an hour we were both lost in conversation. We talked about everything.
He told me about his family, and he told me about his trial. He asked me about law school
and my family. We talked about music, we talked about prison, we talked about what’s
important in life and what’s not. I was completely absorbed in our conversation. We laughed
at times, and there were moments when he was very emotional and sad. We kept talking and
talking, and it was only when I heard a loud bang on the door that I realized I’d stayed way
past my allotted time for the legal visit. I looked at my watch. I’d been there three hours.
The guard came in and he was angry. He snarled at me, “You should have been done a long
time ago. You have to leave.”
He began handcuffing Henry, pulling his hands together behind his back and locking them
there. Then he roughly shackled Henry’s ankles. The guard was so angry he put the cuffs on
too tight. I could see Henry grimacing with pain.
I said, “I think those cuffs are on too tight. Can you loosen them, please?”
“I told you: You need to leave. You don’t tell me how to do my job.”
Henry gave me a smile and said, “It’s okay, Bryan. Don’t worry about this. Just come back
and see me again, okay?” I could see him wince with each click of the chains being tightened
around his waist.
I must have looked pretty distraught. Henry kept saying, “Don’t worry, Bryan, don’t worry.
Come back, okay?”
As the officer pushed him toward the door, Henry turned back to look at me.
I started mumbling, “I’m really sorry. I’m really sor—”
“Don’t worry about this, Bryan,” he said, cutting me off. “Just come back.”
I looked at him and struggled to say something appropriate, something reassuring,
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