Justice Littered with Injustice: Viewing Just Mercy in a Charged Moment
Editor’s note: to see this movie free in the month of June, 2020, go to Just Mercy – Watch for Free
by Julia Smucker
The film Just Mercy (Warner Brothers, 2019) follows attorney Bryan Stevenson’s early career as founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, providing legal counsel to inmates on Alabama’s death row. In particular, the film focuses on the case of Walter McMillan, known to family and friends as “Johnnie D,” a black man convicted of murder by an all-white jury on the basis of false testimony provided by another prisoner as part of a plea deal. In so doing, the film takes a hard and prescient look at the interplay of racial bias – both overt and implicit – in American society and the systemic flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system.
The racially charged microaggressions (and even outright macroaggressions) that both Stevenson and his clients experience are none too subtle, and I admit I found myself wondering, through some earlier sections of the film, how they match people’s real-life experiences. I knew that interactions would be dramatized for narrative purposes, but I also knew that I had no experience being a lawyer, a prison inmate, a prison staffer, an African-American, or a resident of Alabama, so it was hard for me to gauge the realism in the portrayals of these experiences. However, one scene involving an unexplained traffic stop threw cold water on these musings. Multiple recent and past events have made it undeniably clear that the way Stevenson is treated in that scene actually happens, and worse.
Through such experiences faced by a black lawyer like Stevenson or, even more strongly, a black inmate like McMillan, the film is punctuated by stark reminders that these experiences proceed from a long legacy of racial injustice. One early scene showing rows of mostly black inmates in prison outfits working in a field, overseen by a white warden, appears designed to be reminiscent of slavery and is in fact a reminder that slavery in the U.S. has not been fully abolished: the Constitution allows it for those convicted of crimes. This image sets the stage for the illustrations that follow of how systemic racism is deeply embedded the U.S. criminal justice system.
The film is equally illustrative of serious problems in the application of the death penalty. Even without its disproportionate application to racial minorities and especially African-Americans, it would be scandalous how frequently people are convicted, sentenced, and executed on the basis of evidence that ought to be considered far too flimsy for the grave determination to end a life. Like McMillan, many have been exonerated after serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. But the seemingly impenetrable walls McMillan encounters in the appeals process following his all-too-hasty conviction – and all the more, the fact that many are executed despite evidence casting reasonable doubt on their guilt – should be appalling even to those who believe the death penalty is sometimes justified.
The haste with which McMillan is convicted and sentenced to death, and the demoralizing uphill struggle to overturn his conviction – not only in the barriers faced within the criminal justice system, but in the anger these efforts provoke within the community – bring out another troubling factor in the conviction and sentencing of capital crimes, particularly in emotionally charged cases. The community’s grief from the murder for which McMillan was charged is legitimate and deep, but the outrage then turns to an uglier desire for revenge. As much as McMillan’s family and friends remain convinced of his innocence, the family of murder victim Ronda Morrison and others in the community appear equally determined to believe his guilt. It’s as if they so badly want to see somebody punished for the crime that whether it’s the actual perpetrator who’s punished becomes secondary at best.
There’s an additional layer of irony to this scapegoating in the fact that the city of Monroeville, where the murder occurred, is touted as the place where Harper Lee wrote her famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, about a black man falsely accused of a crime who faces a legal system insurmountably biased against him despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. That irony appears lost on those who recommend that Stevenson visit the museum dedicated to the book and speak proudly of its place in civil rights history, yet eagerly condemn McMillan and others convicted on weak evidence almost in the same breath.
The drive to find a scapegoat for particularly painful crimes may partly explain the appeal of a “tough-on-crime” approach to lawmaking and law enforcement. It’s an image that seems to have worked well for Sheriff Tom Tate, who arrested McMillan and was involved in his prosecution, and who was reelected sheriff six times after McMillan’s exoneration and continued in that position until his retirement, as the audience learns at the end of the film. Although the “tough” approach is often defended in the name of public safety, i.e. “getting dangerous criminals off the streets,” we also learn that not only did the murder in question remain unsolved, but a white man later implicated in the murder was never charged. This seems to suggest, in addition to the obvious racial overtones, that once “justice” had run its course in the eyes of the community, identifying and apprehending the true perpetrator was no longer a serious concern.
According to the retributive model on which most criminal justice systems are based, justice demands punishment for crimes. Yet even within that same model, justice must also require that people wrongly convicted of crimes be exonerated and that no death sentence be carried out while there is credible evidence of the person’s innocence – a gross injustice which cannot be undone. The final tragedy of Just Mercy is that even when justice is achieved for those wrongly convicted, parts of their lives have been irretrievably taken from them, both in the time spent in incarceration and the lasting psychological effects of that experience. The justice of the film’s resolution, though satisfying to the viewer, acquires a certain heaviness when we see how it’s littered with numerous injustices along the way.
However, more than the fact that such justice, while harder than it should be, can sometimes be achieved, the great hope I see in Just Mercy is an implicit personalism. We see how people on both sides of the criminal justice system can become jaded and hardened, but also how they can change for the better, whether dramatically or incrementally, as some of those most deeply complicit in that system’s injustices ultimately show signs of seeing the humanity in those they’ve tended to view with suspicion. This, in my view, is the most important takeaway from Just Mercy: we should see it not simply as a chance to feel superior to those who are complicit in injustice, but as an occasion to interrogate possible prejudices in ourselves individually and in our social structures, in order to work toward necessary improvements.
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