Finding Just Mercy

This is my first blog post.  It’s Michelle writing, and I will be writing almost 100% of the posts.  I am writing to reflect, share, teach, and just be me.  Some of my posts will be informative for potential clients, and some of my posts will be about a topic close to my heart – criminal justice reform.  But my main reason for writing is to share the viewpoint and some of the things we experience as defenders of the citizen accused.  We are their voice and we want to share the hard experiences our clients often face, the battles we fight, the victories we win, and what we’ve learned along the way.

I recently heard Bryan Stevenson speak at Baylor University.  Bryan Stevenson has won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color.  Bryan also recently released a book called Just Mercy.  Bryan is definitely one of my heroes.  Last week I had the special opportunity, along with my good friend Kent McKeever, to visit with Bryan after the speech he gave to the chapel students at Baylor University.

Bryan reminded me why we defend.  Bryan reminded me why we fight with hope. Bryan also reminded me how important it is to be a voice, to share what we experience, because as he said “the things we see (as defenders) a lot of people would think differently about a lot of things, if they saw what we see on a daily basis.”

In his book, Bryan talks about representing people accused of capital crimes who are facing the death penalty, and he discusses how when things got really bad and his clients questioned the value of their lives he would remind them, “that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

I love that statement.

I also love talking about the power of mercy as Bryan does in his book.  Bryan states in his book “the power of JUST MERCY is that it beLongs to the undeserving.  It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent.”

I sometimes bring up mercy in my closing arguments when I am talking to juries about punishment, and I am often times met with a response by the State that “mercy is something God gives and that their job is to punish and do justice.”

I don’t believe that justice and mercy are separate or incompatible goals.

Mercy can be just.  And justice can also be merciful.

My work often causes me to question what we call “justice,” and it also makes even more apparent the missing element of mercy in many aspects of our system.

I question our definition of “justice” when I see the state of many of our veterans in the criminal justice system.  I question justice when I see veterans who are suffering with addictions and mental health problems after serving their countries, and then those same men are sent to serve lengthy prison sentences.

I reject “justice” when I learn that a man is 22x more likely to receive a death sentence when he is black and the victim is white.

I wonder where the mercy is as I defend clients sent to death row and watch people with severe forms of mental illness and intellectual disabilities across the country facing execution.

I question justice when I hear that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6x the rate of white people.

And then I feel the hope of mercy when a Judge honors my veteran client’s service to this country and gives my client a just punishment, but  does not leave out the mercy and in that punishment and also offers my client a chance at a life in the future.

I feel mercy in the words of Michael Morton, an innocent man who spent over two decades in prison because of the dishonest and wrongful prosecution and conviction sought by Ken Anderson.  I see mercy in Morton’s request to the Court at Ken Anderson’s hearing, “I ask that you do what needs to be done.  But at the same time please to be gentle with Judge Anderson.”

I see justice when a prosecutor exercises their discretion to dismiss a serious case that lacks reliable evidence.  I see justice and mercy when a prosecutor cares about my client’s traumatic past and not just the worst thing they’ve ever done.

I see justice and mercy when we create pretrial intervention programs, mental health courts, veteran courts, and DWI/drug courts that help hurting people address the root of their problems.  These programs help my clients face or deal with the real problems instead of giving up on them as human beings — instead of just locking them up and throwing away the keys.

So I must disagree, mercy is not just left for God.

We are called to do justice AND we are called to be merciful.

Our criminal justice system has focused solely on justice and given it a one dimensional meaning (justice = harsh punishment).  We need to redefine the meaning of justice, and we also need to remember the power of mercy.

My wise and humble law professor Mark Osler (who was a Federal prosecutor and later became a voice for clemency and mercy) quoted Micah 6:8 to his students in our first criminal practice class, and the importance of this verse for those of us participating in the criminal justice system will never leave me:

Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

I pray we become a country that seeks to truly redefine justice and that we remember the power of mercy.


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