The death row inmates and prisoners suffer from extreme oppression, systemic power, and dehumanization. According to the conflict theory, tension among groups shapes social structure. This is demonstrated through the all white juries that held major biases against people of color, harsher punishments for crimes committed by people of color, the increasing likelihood of people of color being sentenced to death row if they committed a crime against a white person, the lack of recognition and appropriate treatment to the mentally ill, and the trying of children of color as adults. In addition, white criminals received far less abusive treatment, shorter sentencing, more leniency in court, and faced less bias and discrimination by the system. Each of these examples reflect the tension among whites and people of color, as well as how the societal favoring of whites shaped the system in order to benefit white people and work against people of color.
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According to the social constructionism theory, individual’s experiences and society are shaped by the interaction between people and their environment and the meaning they attach to those interactions. During this time, racism was still a major part of society. The societal favoring of whites and oppression of people of color was prominent throughout the prisons and courts. For example, in the case of Walter McMillian’s, a white prisoner was promised a shorter sentencing if he were to frame McMillians, a black man, for the murder of Ronda Morrison (88). After several months with no suspects in custody, the police and community were desperate for an arrest. Therefore, it was convenient and easy to blame a black man.
This demonstrates the lack of value that society placed on the lives of people of color, which justified their placing them blame on a black man when there was no one else to blame. In addition, at the second day of McMillians’s retrial, the police came armed with police dogs as a scare tactic in order to prevent people of color from attending the trial. Mrs. Williams, a confident and elegant older woman, arrived at the courthouse prepared to support McMillians during his trial. However, upon seeing the police dogs and having flashbacks to the Selma March where she was attacked, she panicked and fled the building (111). This left her seriously disappointed in herself for not being able to face the dogs and support McMillians. In this situation, the police dogs represented a form of violence and intimidation in which society (namely police) used in order to segregate people of color. This resulted in traumatizing Mrs. Williams to the point that she couldn’t remain in the courtroom.
Stevenson describes the story of George Daniel, a mentally ill man on Alabama’s death row, who Stevenson represented in his federal court proceedings. After a serious car accident left George with brain damage, he began hallucinating, sleeping irregularly, and exhibiting bizarre and erratic behaviors. A week after the accident, George, disorientated and uncommunicative, boarded a bus and took it as far as the money in his pocket would allow him. He began wondering the town of Hurtsboro and entering people’s homes. After entering an older woman’s home and startling her, she called the police who arrived and arrested George. The police officer forcibly removed George from the home as George resisted, which ultimately led to the two wrestling and the discharge of the officer’s gun, shooting him in the stomach and killing him. George was charged with capital murder (119). Two lawyers were appointed to represent him.
However, they were primarily concerned about the conditions of their pay, more so than the conditions of the trial or their client’s fate. When George’s mother suggested using his un-cashed paycheck as further proof of his mental illness (someone like George who knew the value of a dollar would’ve surely cashed the check once receiving it), they cashed it to pay themselves, rather than providing it as evidence in court. The judge also had a physician perform a competency examination on George to assess his mental illness. The doctor concluded that George was faking the symptoms of a mental illness. However, it was later discovered that the doctor was a fraud, having no medical training and having fooled the hospital into believing he was a trained physician with expertise in psychiatry. The conditions and treatment of the prison also furthered George’s mental illness. Although the State acknowledged that the appointed physician was a fraud, they still denied George a new trial. Finally, Stevenson was able to win a favorable ruling from a federal judge. George’s sentence and conviction were overturned and he was never retried or prosecuted due to his mental illness and incompetency.
He was then placed in a mental institution (120). Individuals with a mental illness have a history of abuse and neglect in prisons and courts, including abusive punishment, solitary confinement, and extreme forms of available detention. In addition, judged, prosecutors, and lawyers rarely accommodated or recognized the special needs of the mentally ill (118). The resistance and advocacy of he EJI was paramount in relieving George of his convictions and sentence. George’s original lawyers did a poor job of representing him and the physician conducting his competency examination was unreliable and unprofessional. Ultimately, George’s initial trial was unfair and prejudice against mentally ill persons – the police were unable to properly respond to his mental illness, the judge did not recognize his mental illness, and his bizarre and erratic behaviors were seen as defiance. Stevenson gathered evidence of his innocence and mental illness, exposed the physician fraud, fought for a retrial, and was able to rescue a mentally ill person from the horrible conditions of prison and death row. In addition, by exposing the physician to be a fraud he will no longer be able to give unreliable examinations of other prisoners and potentially send more mentally ill persons to prison.
Stevenson represented Herbert Richardson, a war veteran suffering from PTSD. Although unintentional, Richardson was being charged with the murder of a young girl. In many ways, Stevenson applied the strengths perspective through empathy, empowerment, mercy, and humanization. Stevenson recognized Richardson’s intelligence, big heart, lack of murder intent, challenging background, faith, and support system in his family. He also recognized the bias in the court, which included poor performance by his lawyer, the striking of all black prospective jurors, and the invoking on unprecedented theories in order to send Richardson to death row for a crime that was not usually eligible for the death penalty (51). Although Richardson was ultimately put to death, he remained positive and uplifting. On the day of his execution, Stevenson described him as “energetic and gracious”. He also mentions being taken back by how hard Richardson was working to make his family feel better in the face of his own death (56). Although Stevenson had never witnessed an execution, Richardson expressed the comfort he would feel having him there. Therefore, Stevenson agreed to attend. Before the execution, Richardson requested that the prison play a recording of a hymn, which Stevenson discussed with prison officials and was successful in obtaining. Stevenson empathized with Richardson’s trauma from war and his childhood, therefore recognizing his mental confusion and lack of murderous intent. He empowered Richardson’s family to stray strong throughout his execution, as well as ensured that Richardson was awarded the one request he had – the playing of the hymn (56-57). Finally, he demonstrated humanization by ensuring that Richardson’s family was given the American flag that he earned through his military service (54).
Stevenson, B. (2014). Just mercy: A story of justice and redemption (First edition.). New York: Spiegel & Grau
Just Mercy Review. (2020, May 13).
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