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THE LAST WORD: ‘Just Mercy’ elicits anger, but also hope

Kerry Hubartt

How many times have we read about some prisoner who has been on death row for years being exonerated due to new evidence or DNA tests that overturn a false conviction?

A film I saw recently tells the true story of such a case. “Just Mercy” is based on the memoir of the same name written by defense attorney Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan in the film, was a young Harvard Law School graduate who went to Alabama in 1989 to help poor people unable to pay for legal representation.

He founded the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley in Montgomery and proceeded to go to a prison to meet death row inmates and hear their stories. There he met Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx, an African-American who was convicted of murdering a white woman in 1986.

The film chronicles Stevenson’s quest to have McMillian’s conviction overturned.

Statistics show that as of 2017, 159 death row prisoners have been exonerated due to evidence of their innocence. According to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to exonerating the wrongly convicted, since the early 1990s, 22 death row inmates across the country have been absolved of crimes through DNA evidence.

The Innocence Project reports that an estimated 4 percent of people on death row are wrongfully convicted, as was McMillian. That means at least 100 people are waiting in prison cells to be executed for crimes they did not commit. “And those who have seen the film,” says the Innocence Project, “have been shocked and outraged to learn of such injustice.”

The gripping story in “Just Mercy” follows Stevenson’s quest to uncover the truth behind McMillian’s conviction, which was based entirely on the testimony of convicted felon Ralph Myers, who gave false testimony in exchange for a lighter sentence in his own pending trial.

Stevenson appeals to the local court for a retrial and convinces Myers to tell the truth on the witness stand, but the judge nevertheless refuses to grant a retrial. Stevenson eventually appears on television’s “60 Minutes” to tell McMillian’s story and appeals to the Supreme Court of Alabama, which overturns the circuit court decision and grants the retrial.

It’s a story of immense unfairness and endless frustration due to corrupt or biased players in the justice system. At the end of the film, the real people in the story are shown along with explanations of what happened to them following the case. It is remarkable how the actors physically resemble each of those people.

A follow-up investigation into the death of the murdered woman in the case confirmed McMillian’s innocence. A white man was said to be likely responsible, but the case was never solved.

McMillian remained friends with Stevenson until McMillian’s death in 2013. Stevenson and Ansley continue to fight for justice.

In a 2014 New York Times review of Stevenson’s book, New York University journalism professor Ted Conover writes, “A strength of this account is that instead of the Hollywood moment of people cheering and champagne popping when the court finally frees McMillian, Stevenson admits he was ‘confused by my suddenly simmering anger.’ He found himself thinking of how much pain had been visited on McMillian and his family and community, and about others wrongly convicted who hadn’t received the death penalty and thus were less likely to attract the attention of activist lawyers.”

It’s those individual defendants and endemic problems that were effectively represented in the film and elicited tremendous emotion from many who watched it. And it’s reinforced the case against the death penalty in many minds as well.

I would redirect Conover’s final words in his review of the book toward the film as well: “‘Just Mercy’ will make you upset, and it will make you hopeful. The day I finished it, I happened to read in a newspaper that one in 10 people exonerated of crimes in recent years had pleaded guilty at trial. The justice system had them over a log and copping a plea had been their only hope. Bryan Stevenson has been angry about this for years, and we are all the better for it.”

– Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.