The truth will set you free. Not always, but sometimes–even though it often takes much longer than it should. That’s one of the takeaways from the film Just Mercy, which is based on Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same title.
I didn’t read the book, but I knew the story going in because I’d heard Stevenson speak in Dallas a few years ago. The man and his stories moved me to tears, and I was no less moved by the film.
Alabama, 1987: Walter “Johnny D” McMillian is pulled over one night as he’s driving home from a day felling trees for his successful logging business. He’s clearly scared to death, because the white sheriff clearly loathes him, and in short order Johnny D is falsely convicted of murdering an 18-year-old white girl who was killed six months earlier at the Dry Cleaner store where she clerked. He’s put on Death Row. Two years later the young Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson arrives in Monroeville, Alabama (home of the “To Kill a Mockingbird Museum”) to look into his case and those of other Death Row inmates at the nearby state prison. At first Johnny D wants nothing to do with him. Other lawyers have come and gone and done nothing but extract payment from his family, but Bryan doesn’t want any money. He’s heading a fledgling non-profit (the Equal Rights Initiative), and he’s there to seek the truth. After reviewing all the facts, he tells the local District Attorney (who’s new to the job and didn’t try the case) that it’s clear Johnny D is innocent. The D.A. says, “You’re the only one who thinks that,” to which Bryan replies, “Then I must be the only one who read the transcript.”
Exposing the truth is an uphill battle that feels like it can’t be won, not after they lose an appeal that should have been a clear Victory for Johnny D and his lawyer. But Stevenson won’t give up. He turns to the ‘court’ of public appeal and lands on “60 Minutes.”
Throughout the film, the details of the case are a cause for disbelief and outrage: Johnny D has a rock-solid alibi–the day of the murder he was at a Church fish fry eleven miles away along with dozens of eye-witnesses; when a key defense witness (a young black man) overcomes his fear and comes forward to testify, he is arrested for perjury; Stevenson uncovers evidence that the convicted white felon whose court testimony sealed Johnny D’s fate was coerced by authorities into telling a false narrative.
Why does someone like Bryan Stevenson decide to get into this line of work? He grew up poor in Delaware and could have used his Harvard degree to seek an affluent, comfortable life. Family history and a desire to help people steered him in another direction. His grandparents fled the Jim Crow South, where, as his grandmother explained to him, the danger wasn’t in being lynched for committing a real crime (they were all too scared to do that), but for little infractions like looking at a white person the ‘wrong way’ or accidentally bumping into someone while trying to get off a train. While still in law school, Bryan interned for the Southern Center for Human Rights and met Death Row inmates he was sure were innocent.
Harper Lee wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird in Monroeville. When Stevenson arrives in town, he is urged to visit the museum and stand where Atticus Finch once stood, and the D.A. even goes so far as to claim the museum as one of the great Civil Rights landmarks of the South. I dare say everyone who’s read the book or seen the movie acknowledges Atticus Finch’s fine moral character, but remember how the story ends? An innocent black man is convicted of a rape he didn’t commit. Atticus plans to appeal the case, but the prisoner makes a run for it and is shot dead.
The problem in Monroeville (and in other parts of America as well) is that despite the “60 Minutes” piece and despite the total exoneration of Johnny D by the court, the town continued to re-elect the corrupt sheriff who was in on the plot to frame an innocent man and have him executed. It was only last year that the sheriff finally retired. People want to feel safe in their communities. I get that. But how does believing in a false narrative make us safer?
The movie posters that advertise Just Mercy say: “Every generation has its hero. Meet ours.” When Bryan Stevenson won a sizable grant in 1995 for a MacArthur Award (also known as “The Genius Award”), he poured all the money into the Equal Rights Initiative (ERI) to help pay his lawyers. Today the ERI employs a large legal staff; over 160 Death Row inmates have been proven innocent through their efforts. Bryan is also the force behind two new cultural sites. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL, opened in April 2018. Built on the site of a former warehouse where black people were enslaved, it commemorates victims of lynching in the United States. The Legacy Museum, located a short distance away, is meant to educate and advocate for social justice. “More than 4,400 African-American men, women and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.”
Truth, by itself, doesn’t set you free, not “when you’re guilty from the moment you’re born,” as Johnny D says to Stevenson.
If you haven’t yet seen this film, just go see it. Please. I doubt you’ll regret it.