“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

Headshot of author Bryan Stevenson next to the cover of his New York Times bestseller "Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption."

“Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

What one man’s journey to free men on death row in Alabama tells us about mercy and redemption, a peak into Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

“Why do we want to kill all the broken people? What is wrong with us, that we think a thing like that can be right?”

At a young age, Bryan Stevenson, a criminal defense lawyer, established a practice focused on freeing people Alabama’s notorious prisons and on death row from execution. While the rest of the country was slowly killing less people sentenced to death by the courts, Alabama’s execution rate went the opposite direction.

In 2014, he released a book about his journey and The Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit he started to represent death row inmates, that covers many angles of the justice system. It is a heartbreaking book which lays bare the human torture and cost wreaked by our broken justice system. But deeper than the facts and injustice held in Stevenson’s pages, he asks us all to deepen our empathy in the most uncomfortable way. Haven’t we all asked for mercy and redemption at one point in our lives?  Don’t we all deserve mercy? Aren’t we all better than our worst day?

America destroys people, and Stevenson tells stories of many of his clients obliterated by poverty, systemic racism and abuse. People who you cannot believe were still breathing by the time they got to him and asked for criminal defense representation. 

These people, broken by the state, mental illness, disability and poverty, instead of being met with healing, compassion and accountability are thrown away into prisons that violate numerous human rights, and are either sent to execution or returned to society more abused and traumatized than ever before.

“In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice,” Stevenson writes. 

This is the clunky, sticky work of abolition and peering into the justice system: it demands we see people behind bars or otherwise caught up as no different from our own broken selves. It asks us to look deeply into their lives to understand people despite their crimes or level of innocence. 

“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent,” he writes. Stevenson goes further to say that very brokenness is what makes us human.

“Sometimes we are fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion,” he writes.

How are you broken? When have you received compassion and mercy when you were undeserving of it? What makes us believe that we can deny the same to anyone else?

What could it mean to treat people with love and compassion instead of punishment? How different would our world look?

Stevenson chronicles how he witnessed victims of violent crime and their loved ones pressured “to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute.” This often leaves the families without closure and throws the defendants life away. Stevenson confronts the reader:

“We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”

“If we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, or deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others.”
Michael B Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, a death row inmate, in the movie version of Just Mercy.
Michael B Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, a death row inmate, in the movie version of Just Mercy.

And possibly this is the only way to break our cycle of harm:

“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent — strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.”

What does mercy mean to you and where does it fit in your life?