While away visiting my mom in sunny Florida, I read FOUR books, and among them was Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson.
Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, written by Brian
Stevenson who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which defends the
poor and wrongly convicted.
This book tells the story of Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. The case is an example of what justice looks like for poor black people too much of the time.
In the 1980s, Walter McMillian had his own pulpwood business, a wife, and three children. He was by no means perfect, and it was well-known that he spent time with other women. Among them was Karen Kelly, a married white woman. Although the Supreme Court had struck down anti-miscegenation statutes in Loving vs Virginia in 1967, Alabama's state constitution still restricted interracial marriage: "The Legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or a descendant of a Negro." It wouldn't be until 2000 that the law was struck when 59% of voters chose to eliminate the ban on interracial marriage. Sadly 41% voted to keep it, which offers insight into what happened next.
A few weeks after Walter was called in to court to testify in the divorce proceedings between Karen Kelly and her husband Joe, 18 year old Ronda Morrison was shot dead at the Monroe Cleaners where she worked. A few days after this murder, Tom Tate was elected the new county sheriff, and soon found himself under pressure to solve the case. Meanwhile, Karen Kelly was not doing well and had begun to associate with Ralph Myers, a man with a badly scarred face (he was burned in a fire while in foster care) and a lengthy criminal record. The two became involved in dealing drugs and were implicated in the murder of Vickie Lynn Pittman. Ralph, in an effort to extricate himself from the trouble was in, eventually told investigators that he, Karen Kelly, and Walter McMillian had been involved in the death of Vickie Pittman, and that Walter was responsible for Ronda Morrison's death.
Investigators then set up a meeting between Ralph and Walter, but Walter obviously had no idea who Ralph was. Nevertheless, based on Myers story (which he'd changed multiple times), Sheriff Tate, ABI (Alabama Bureau of Investigation) lead investigator Simon Benson, and DA investigator Larry Ikner arrested Walter McMillian for the murder of Ronda Morrison. Then, when Myers recanted, Sheriff Tate took both him and Walter Holman Correction Facility to be housed on Death Row, something that is almost never done prior to conviction. This was enough for Myers and based on his testimony of Myers and that of Bill Hooks, who identified Walter's car at the cleaners where Ronda was killed on the day in question (after he was promised release from jail and reward money), Walter was convicted and sentenced to death. Never mind that on the day of the murder Walter spent the morning with a friend working on his truck and then had a fish fry at his house where dozens of witnesses attested to his presence, including a police officer who even noted in his log that he stopped to buy food at Walter's house.
It would take six long years for Brian Stevenson to right the wrong committed in convicting Walter McMillian to death and in that time Stevenson deals with many other cases of injustice, all of which fall disproportionately upon people of color. This is a hard book to read. To think that there is still so much prejudice that people in places of authority are willing to convict an innocent person rather than find the real culprit is sickening. Sadder still is that Sheriff Tate is still in office in Monroe County and apparently no more honest than he was when he decided to arrest an innocent man.
Alabama Sheriffs pocket tax payer dollars