This is the memoir of a lawyer who has spent 30+ years representing people on death row, and more generally, poor people whose treatment by the criminal justice system is egregious. It is a tough subject, but the book makes for compelling reading: the storytelling is strong, making you itch to know what will happen next (even as you may dread it, because Stevenson’s clients so often get the short end of the stick), and the writing is clear and concise. It does an excellent job of raising awareness, bringing readers into contact with a system most Americans never see. I didn’t find myself as bowled over as most readers evidently were, though; certainly Stevenson deserves accolades for his extraordinary dedication, passion and commitment, and certainly this is a good book, but the astronomical average rating would have you believe it is one of the best books ever written and I don’t believe that’s the case.
We follow one case throughout the book, of a man condemned to death on the flimsiest of evidence; one would think anyone could see Walter McMillian had nothing to do with the murder, given that his professed accomplice couldn’t identify him, that there was no physical evidence, no motive, and, oh, that he was at a fish fry surrounded by dozens of people at the time of the crime. Somehow, none of this stands in the way of Alabama law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and jurors determined to convict. It is unsurprising that McMillian is black and the victim white; in an ironic twist, this all happens in Harper Lee’s hometown, where the locals see no contradiction in cashing in on To Kill a Mockingbird even while participating in exactly the sort of injustice condemned in that book. Alternating chapters tell the story of McMillian’s experience and Stevenson’s efforts to free him. This makes for very strong writing, and the depth of Stevenson’s involvement means that it isn’t just a story of courtroom machinations, but about McMillian’s life and his family and community.
The other chapters highlight a number of other cases and issues the author has worked on, mostly involving people sentenced to death or children sentenced to life without parole. These stories are all sad and sometimes absurd. One woman is convicted of murdering her child, who never even existed; she made up a pregnancy to escape jail time on another offense, then was arrested on suspicion of killing the baby when it never materialized. Facing the death penalty, she pled guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Turns out she’d had her tubes tied several years before, so couldn’t even have conceived. This, of course, doesn’t happen to those with the means to defend themselves, and much of the book deals with the way the system fails the disadvantaged: the poor, people of color, the mentally ill, children. For all the injustice, though, this isn’t a relentlessly depressing book, as Stevenson and his organization have great – though belated – success in obtaining some measure of justice for their clients.
My reservation about the book is that it is, naturally, a piece of advocacy; this is much less the author’s reflection on his work than his argument in the court of public opinion. It is a brilliant public-relations effort, and accordingly, the author cherry-picks the most compelling cases, the most sympathetic clients. Either they’re innocent, or they were acting stupidly and dangerously but without the intent to kill anyone, or they are abused and neglected children, or they suffer from severe mental illness. Stevenson mentions representing everyone on death row whom he has the resources to help, so presumably he’s advocated for plenty of people who deliberately murdered another person and did so as adults, but there’s not a whisper of it here. That feels disingenuous to me, and makes the book seem incomplete.
So, do I think this book is worth reading? Yes – it will certainly make you think, and people need to be aware of injustices in the criminal justice system. It has its limitations; Stevenson chooses for mass consumption those cases that best illustrate his points, which are unlikely to be representative of the system as a whole. But these stories are still important and deserve to be told, and Stevenson tells them well.