At the conclusion of the media screening of Just Mercy, the amazing story of attorney Bryan Stevenson, the audience broke into sustained — and well-deserved — applause. My feeling was, “It’s about damn time.”
Indeed, it’s far past time that the world knows that in America one out of nine individuals that are sentenced to death row are eventually cleared of any crime. The question that comes to mind is, “How many times was the ‘mistake’ not found in time, or not at all?” And the more shocking fact is, in some cases, no “mistake” was made. Some false convictions are intentional.
One of the first cases Stevenson (played with appropriate passion by Michael B. Jordan) tackles when he opens up a law clinic in Alabama is that of Walter McMillian (portrayed by Jamie Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl, despite overwhelming evidence proving his innocence. The only thing the married McMillian was guilty of was having an affair with a white woman and not keeping it a secret. For this flagrant infraction of small-town white Alabama norms, he was framed and almost executed.
In 1983, while still a 23-year-old law student at Harvard, Stevenson took an internship in the South that led him to death rows in numerous states. After talking with some of the condemned men he came away outraged at the callous unjustness of the American criminal justice system. He soon dedicated his life to righting the wrongs he was confronted with.
The McMillian case featured in the film was selected since it was one of the most flagrant and egregious twistings of the legal system that purports to protect the innocent while finding and punishing the guilty. One of the dirty little secrets of law enforcement is, when the real perpetrator of a particularly heinous or high-profile crime can’t be identified and brought to justice, cops and prosecutors will pick anyone they feel they can get away with framing, simply to quell public outcry and avoid looking bad. This still goes on far too often in America.
While the entire cast of the film did yeoman’s work, the veteran actor Tim Blake Nelson, playing the role of the grotesquely disfigured snitch who lied on the stand and placed McMillian on death row, will probably receive a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
If you care one whit about justice, Just Mercy is a film you can’t afford to miss. And yes, like he has done in so many other cases over his now decades-long career, Stevenson saved McMillian’s life.