Epistemology of Empathy in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy

In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson lays bare the inherent error in judgment that plagues the criminal justice system. Blinded by slavery’s legacy, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges seek colorblind principles of “justice” and “freedom” at the cost of any true sense of the words. Racism, like a cancer, spreads to every corner of the nation’s formal framework, weighing heavily on its collective consciousness. Stevenson shows that black and poor people now experience inordinate pain and suffering amidst slavery’s newest form, mass incarceration. An increasing number of children, women, and men live and die in cages, while many Americans buy into “get tough on crime” rhetoric. Combating this hypocrisy, hatred, and fear, Stevenson solicits empathy from a country with an historically severe deficiency in the subject. Getting closer in proximity to mass incarceration’s human details, he argues, spurs the empathetic connections necessary to contextualize, and therefore, empower individuals. Not only does proximity breed empathy, it draws the truth of human dignity out from the clutches of rigid, often oppressive structures of power. Gaining deep knowledge of any individual’s story contextualizes her in a way that renders mass incarceration and extreme punitive “justice” absurd. I argue that Stevenson embarks on a philosophical exploration of the epistemological implications of empathy in his book. He achieves this by 1) relating his own epiphanies as products of empathy, 2) juxtaposing a disconnected, impersonal justice system with an individual’s story and struggle, imparting knowledge of the system’s inherent injustices, and 3) complicating a loose concept of empathy within the context of victims’ advocacy groups.

In his introduction to Just Mercy, “Higher Ground,” Stevenson recounts his intellectual and moral development in three human connections. The first, Steve Bright, is the director of the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). Stevenson explains that Bright “had a passion and certainty that seemed the direct opposite of my ambivalence,” and he immediately “warmly wrapped me in a full-body hug.”[1] Bright guides Stevenson out of his ennui and into a life dedicated to relieving condemned individuals of their suffering within a disconnected and harsh criminal justice system. His hug is one of many riddled throughout the book, symbolizing the power of unconditional compassion in transforming a racist status quo. Bright lays the humble foundations on which Stevenson builds his Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), as he tells the young intern, “’We live kind of simply, and the hours are pretty intense … Well, actually, we might even be described as living less than simply. More like living poorly.”[2] Stevenson shows throughout the book that, more often than not, money leads to corruption. He relates that Bill Hooks receives at least $5,000 from law enforcement officials to falsely testify against Walter McMillian; Alabama holds partisan elections for judges, introducing business interests into a system that ought to function independently from politics; lawyers often half-heartedly delve into their cases, for they receive a capped $1,000 for out-of-court preparation; and, finally, the “prison industrial complex” works to incarcerate and execute people for a profit.[3] Stevenson valorizes Bright and the SPDC for their sustained attack on mass incarceration, while remaining true to their humble roots. Describing Bright’s influence over his development as an attorney, Stevenson shows the compassion and humility necessary to transform the system.

Henry, the second connection in Stevenson’s introduction, is the first inmate with whom the author comes into contact. On his way to deliver a message, “You will not be killed in the next year,” Stevenson experiences crippling insecurity regarding his own inadequate credentials, and anxiety at the prospect of meeting a prisoner.[4] After spending time in a room he describes as “an empty cage,” Stevenson glimpses Henry as he enters the space. He explains, “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.”[5] Finally in close proximity to a “criminal,” the “otherness” that society attributes to incarcerated individuals dissipates, and a humanity surfaces, which grips Stevenson to the core. After delivering the news to Henry, the latter expresses sincere gratitude, and soon they “were both lost in conversation.”[6] Stevenson, here, expresses the significance of a seemingly unremarkable conversation for people deprived of meaningful contact. He connects with Henry on a level that reveals for him the inherent dignity in each individual, causing him to empathize with Henry’s circumstances. As a result, Stevenson writes, “Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness … Proximity to the condemned and incarcerated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own.”[7] Instilling in him a sense of purpose, Stevenson’s connection with Henry marks the beginning of the author’s crusade to listen to, empathize with, and know deeply society’s poorest individuals.

Stevenson’s grandmother, his third connection in the introduction, is the daughter of people who were enslaved. He writes, “The legacy of slavery very much shaped my grandmother and the way she raised her nine children. It influenced the way she talked to me, the way she constantly told me to ‘Keep close.’”[8] Though his great-grandmother experienced slavery firsthand, he contextualizes the institution through his relationship to her daughter. In this way, he emphasizes the importance of personal connections in shaping one’s worldview. His grandmother, he explains, “would hug me so tightly I could barely breathe,” and tell him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” Her loving embrace and advice permanently etch into Stevenson’s consciousness, as he proceeds to live firmly by her actions and words. Slavery, he shows, remains alive in the collective psyche, passing down to each generation. Its persistent byproduct, racism, ought to be tempered with another byproduct, strong familial bonds of love that transcend hatred and fear. Stevenson explains, “Proximity to the condemned, to people unfairly judged; that was what guided me back to something that felt like home.”[9] One understands that his remarkable capacity to “get close” to incarcerated individuals—to strive to know who they are—stems, in part, from his associating that compassion with loving memories of his grandmother.

Empathy remains the common denominator in all three of the introduction’s human connections. Relating these connections to the reader, Stevenson establishes his primary weapon in the fight for justice as one that stems from compassion and acknowledging human dignity. One understands that these qualities remain antithetical to the institution of mass incarceration, a phenomenon that breeds injustice, violence, and human suffering. Torture persists in the guise of legal practices, like solitary confinement, which has individuals locked in boxes to “endure extreme heat for days or weeks.”[10] Many prisoners cripple under the extreme stress imposed by confinement; some even develop stress-induced diseases, like multiple sclerosis.[11] Stevenson and his EJI work within the legal system to right these vast wrongs, seeking to put a complex, human face to each “criminal” the system creates. Only by respecting each individual can the nation develop a just correctional system. Knowledge of the individual proceeds from empathy for the condemned. Context, Stevenson argues, is key.

Bryan Stevenson exhibits the epistemological implications of empathy most clearly in a case involving a Vietnam War veteran with PTSD. On paper, Herbert Richardson’s crime appears horrendous. He places a bomb on a woman’s porch, which explodes, killing a ten-year-old girl and injuring her friend.[12] Yet, in context, his actions reflect those of a man deeply troubled by the psychological stress of war, abuse, and neglect. Stevenson shows the damning factors that play a role in prosecuting people with disabilities, like Herbert. He explains, “His identity as an outsider, a Northerner, and the nature of the crime seemed to generate heightened contempt from law enforcement officials.”[13] Without meaningful knowledge of the historical and personal context revolving around the events leading up to Herbert’s creating the bomb, the prosecutor “argued that Herbert was not just tragically misguided and reckless; he was evil.” Tagging an individual as “evil,” the prosecutor places a wedge between Herbert, a complex human, and the rest of “normal” society. Stevenson describes this dehumanizing process of labeling individuals, as he writes, “We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’—identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes.”[14] Employing the age-old, racist tactic of peremptory strikes, an all-white jury presides over Herbert’s case, as the prosecutor convinces them that Herbert is “’associated with Black Muslims from New York City.’”[15] Again, the prosecutor distances Herbert from the jury’s collective understanding of a “proper” citizen. Attributing rigid identities to individuals based on a single, misguided action, Stevenson shows, has the effect of creating a dangerous distance between people. This mechanism remains a key issue in the unjust sentencing of hundreds of people to death.

Stevenson describes a plethora of factors that amass against Herbert and the possibility of obtaining a stay from the court. Legal formalities pose outrageous obstacles, particularly for people of color. Herbert’s troubled past never surfaces as evidence that he was mentally unstable at the time of his actions. The appointed defense lawyer spends little-to-no effort in uncovering these details, as “Alabama’s statute at the time limited what court-appointed lawyers could be paid for their out-of-court preparation time to $1,000.”[16] This formality breeds little effort in cases that ought to receive adequate attention and care, as a person’s life is on the line. Yet, as Steve Bright tells Stevenson, “capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.’”[17] That is, because Herbert is black, poor, and mentally unstable, the all-white jury quickly condemns him to die without taking into account his story. Propelling this indifference even further, the Supreme Court’s attitude towards executions changes between 1980s and present time. Stevenson describes the Court’s rulings as “increasingly hostile to death row prisoners and less committed to the notion that ‘death is different,’ requiring more careful review.”[18] The Supreme Court creates tougher protocols concerning federal habeas corpus review, rendering most appeals “too late” once the court reaches a decision. Stevenson describes the effect this has on Herbert’s case, as he explains that he “asked several courts to stay Herbert’s execution because of his ineffective lawyer, racial bias during the trial, the inflammatory comments made by the prosecutor, and the lack of mitigation evidence presented. Each court says, ‘Too late.’”[19] Even after Stevenson presents a written petition contextualizing Herbert’s condition, law enforcement officials proceed with the execution, indifferent to the knowledge. Years later, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court recognizes executing “mentally retarded” individuals as unconstitutional, for it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.[20] This epiphany, for hundreds of condemned individuals at the time, comes too late. Exposing the formal hurdles involved in securing a stay and convincing a courtroom to consider an individual’s story, Stevenson shows that some people, or systems, go to extremes to resist empathy and compassion.

Stevenson takes his narrative, and his readers, past the indifferent legal formalities and into the devastating emotional flurry that is execution. By painting the moments before Herbert’s death in detail, Stevenson calls on his readers to bear witness to the State’s inhumane practices within the context of immense personal loss. Like a nightmare, Stevenson’s description builds with tension and urgency, as executioners loom over the final moments between Herbert and his wife.[21] Stevenson explains, “She put her arms around his neck and refused to let him go. After a couple of minutes, her crying turned into groaning, distressed and desperate.”[22] The reader experiences Stevenson’s scene on a visceral level. Here, an individual’s embrace symbolizes a desperate attempt to hold onto a soul the State vows to extinguish. Through his narrative form, Stevenson solicits empathy from his readers, bringing them closer to the details and imparting a new knowledge in the process. That knowledge is different from facts and figures, like the 2.3 million people in prison today.[23] It is a subjective, emotional knowledge that one learns only through close proximity to humans and their stories. Matters reach a particularly low and humiliating point, as Stevenson describes, “They had shaved the hair off his body to facilitate a ‘clean’ execution.”[24] Juxtaposing the actual, formal process of execution with poignant descriptions of human suffering, Stevenson exposes a faulty logic behind the criminal justice system. That law enforcement strips a person naked, shaving his body to ensure an effective dose of electrocution, speaks to the lack of empathy that plagues the system. After Herbert’s execution, Stevenson admits that “I couldn’t stop thinking that we don’t spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves.”[25] Just Mercy is Stevenson’s plea to contemplate the details, get to know the “killers” and “superpredators,” and come away questioning the legitimacy of a system that murders “murderers.”

Stevenson complicates his program of empathy as he discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Payne V. Tennessee. This ruling reverses a 1987 Supreme Court decision that held “all victims are equal.”[26] In other words, the socioeconomic status of any given victim holds no weight in the conviction process. Payne enables states to consider the character, personality, and history of victims, contextualizing their death and its impact on their families and communities. This appears to play, superficially, into Stevenson’s empathy program. With the knowledge of victims’ personal details, one might assume that justice follows. In practice, however, the decision “became one more way for the criminal justice system to disfavor some people.”[27] Millions of state and federal dollars go to victim advocacy groups, creating a new national attitude that favors the victims of particular groups of individuals. Stevenson explains, “Many [poor and minority victims] weren’t included in the conversations about whether a plea bargain was acceptable or what sentence was appropriate.”[28] Racial disparities persist, as 65 percent of homicides in Alabama involve black victims, yet 80 percent of people facing capital punishment murder whites. Illuminating these disparities, Stevenson shows that the little empathy that does surface within the criminal justice system heavily concentrates on white, wealthy victims. Payne enables states to look into victims’ stories, gaining knowledge and contextualizing their cases. In a society plagued by persistent racism, however, even empathy remains a double-edged sword.

Stevenson’s Just Mercy tackles the criminal justice system by infiltrating its cold, concrete walls and drawing complex human details to the surface. He employs empathy as an epistemological tool for contextualizing each condemned individual’s story in such a way as to render incarceration, at the very least, obsolete. Legal formalities, too often, whitewash complicated human stories, preferring “law and order” and “finality” to equitable treatment and justice. Racism and greed work to place a wedge between people in power and poor and black groups that the former commit to life, or death, in prison. Stevenson’s program keeps in step with other authors of the Critical Race Theory tradition. His narrative form breathes life into the dark corners of the execution chamber, working to shed light on society’s weakest groups, giving them a voice. Empowering the faces at the bottom of the well serves to develop a truly just society, one that acknowledges human dignity as universal, which is paramount to a healthy nation. This bottom-up approach to justice often remains elusive, yet Stevenson’s lauded EJIJ experiences considerable success and media attention. Is Stevenson’s project a beacon of hope, or a token success story that blinds his audience to the permanency of racism? Just Mercy concludes with the ultimate deterioration of its main subject, Walter McMillian. Stevenson succeeds in releasing him from prison, yet he acknowledges Walter’s experiencing irreversible damage under the system’s racism and indifference and death row’s inhumane conditions. Stevenson administers pain and suffering in equal doses to progress and success throughout the book. Synthesizing these attitudes, Stevenson effectively critiques a permanently racist society that must struggle to move forward with empathy and compassion.

[1] Stevenson, Bryan, Just Mercy. 5-6.
[2] Ibid. 6.
[3] Ibid. 131, 70, 77, 260.
[4] Ibid. 7.
[5] Ibid. 9.
[6] Ibid. 10.
[7] Ibid. 12.
[8] Ibid. 14.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. 36.
[11] Ibid. 259.
[12] Ibid. 76.
[13] Ibid. 77.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid. 77.
[17] Ibid. 6.
[18] Ibid. 78.
[19] Ibid. 79.
[20] Ibid. 71.
[21] Ibid. 85-87.
[22] Ibid. 86.
[23] Ibid. 15.
[24] Ibid. 88.
[25] Ibid. 91.
[26] Ibid. 141.
[27] Ibid. 142.
[28] Ibid.

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