"Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope allows us to push forward, even when the truth is distorted by the people in power. It allows us to stand up when they tell us to sit down, and to speak when they say be quiet." -Bryan Stevenson
Based on the novel titled "A story of Justice and Redemption" by Bryan Stevenson, the movie "Just Mercy" explicitly brings out the predicaments, controversies and the contentions that are often suppressed by the system engulfing all of us. The movie is based on Bryan Stevenson, an African-American Harvard graduate and his journey to redeem justice for the people on death row in the state of Alabama by establishing Equality Justice Initiative (EJI). The movie revolves around Walter MacMillan, a poor black man wrongfully convicted for the murder of an 18 year old girl, Ronda Morrison. The conviction is solely based on a preposterous testimony of a witness and there is no evidence supporting the claims of the District Attorney and Sheriff. Despite all this, McMillan is on trial for six long years and is issued a death warrant signed by the Court of Circuit. Naturally, Mr. Stevenson applies for retrial in the court of circuit submitting the evidence of alibi and stating no conclusive proof for conviction for Mr. McMillan. But to the astonishment of everyone, racial discrimination, prejudices and corruption reach to the peak when the judge orders in the favor of the state and sets the date for execution. The appeal is laid against the order in the Supreme Court of Alabama. Fortunately, retrial is granted and this time the trial court provides relief to McMillan and orders an immediate release. Supplementing to the trial, the story entails attacks on Mr. Stevenson, death threats to the employees of EJI, and many other wrongful convictions and death sentences.
Persecution of Blacks and the prejudices
"Do you know what we call opinion in the absence of evidence? We call it prejudice." ― Michael Crichton
The persecution of blacks and the prejudices faced by them are the spotlights of the movie. Right from the beginning, where Mr. McMillan is convicted to the strip-search of Mr. Stevenson and the police brutalities on the black convicts, they all highlight the incapabilities and the failure of the Constitution and the Politics in obliterating the prejudices. This is not only limited to the notions at the pretrial stage but also plagues the whole trial and Criminal Justice System. This can be illustrated by one of the cases handled by Stevenson of Mr. Richardson, a Vietnam War veteran suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) , who is facing trial for the offence of killing a lady by planting a bomb under her porch. But the major thing underlying here is the concealment of his mental disease by the prosecutor and the inability of Mr. Richardson to explain it to the Judge and the Jury.
One of instances of persecution of Blacks can be highlighted by the conversation of Stevenson with a white prison guard-
"Guard- Before entering, gonna have to search you. Just go in that room and take everything off.
Stevenson- Attorneys aren't strip-searched for legal visits.
Guards- You ain't gonna visit **** unless you get in that room and strip."(and at the same time the guard allows the other Attorneys to pass without the search)
All this is not even the fraction of atrocities that supplement during the trial. Darnell (the key witness) who could prove the innocence of McMillan is threatened to be put in jail and framed for robbery. The affliction on wrongful conviction can be acknowledged by the conversation where Darnell regrets agreeing to help McMillan-
"How the hell they lockin' me up for perjury if alls I did was say the truth? I knew I shouldn't a signed that paper, man. Shouldn't a listened to you."
"Nobody wants to remember that this is where thousands of enslaved people were shipped in and paraded up the street to be sold. Ten miles from here, black people were pulled from their homes and lynched and nobody talks about it"- This statement by Bryan Stevenson underlines the struggles faced by the blacks over the centuries.
The movie is also a powerful statement against death penalty.
Incidentally, the story takes place in the town of Monroeville in Alabama, where Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is also based, which is considered the foundation stone of Civil Rights Movements. Whether we take the example of Atticus Finch of Harper Lee or McMillan of Brian Stevenson or even the recent case of George Floyd, these events unveil the pathetic treatment and persecution of Blacks.
"The rule of law doesn't mean the police are in charge, but that we all answer to the same laws." -Edward Snowden
Police brutalities are portrayed in this movie with all their horrors. The strip-searching of black attorneys, dreadful behaviour with the black inmates and wrongful conviction and swindling of witnesses, as shown in the movie, will shock a viewer, forcing one to question systemic prejudices.
The brutalities to the prisoners and undertrials are not only limited to the state of Alabama but take place in each and every country. Taking the instance of India, where even after repeated judgments of the SC, police brutalities continue unabated, with the latest example of the Jayaraj-Bennix case of Tamil Nadu. These are the serious threats to the fabric of rule of law and to the dignity of the prisoners and citizens.
Election of judges, who take the case politically and emotionally rather than legally, is another important issue addressed by the film. They rule by biases rather than the application of legal reasoning and evidence.
The story ends with a harsh reality which is actually based on statistics that- "For every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated." This highlights the inadequacies in the criminal justice system and the need to reform the same.
'I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.' – Martin Luther King Jr.
"Just Mercy" is a grim tale of prejudices and racism that brings out the inadequacies in the administration of justice. It shows a mirror to the legal system and highlights that unless judges are liberated from their personal prejudices and biases, justice will remain an unattainable ideal.
(The author is a 3rd-year law student of University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU and may be reached at [email protected]).
(This is the nineteenth article in the "Law On Reels" series, which explores legal themes in movies)