EDITOR’S NOTE: For the past 25 years, Bryan Stevenson has worked to heal the wounds of racism and poverty in America’s criminal justice system. In March of 2012, he challenged the TED community to face the injustices he’s confronted in America’s prisons and received the longest standing ovation in TED history. This month, Stevenson released Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a compelling memoir that has been celebrated from TIME Magazine to the New York Times best-seller list. The following excerpt captures the beauty of Stevenson’s struggle and spirit.
I was in my office, talking to Jimmy Dill on the night of his execution, and I realized I was thinking about something that had happened nearly forty years earlier. I also realized that I was crying. The tears were sliding down my cheeks—runaways that escaped when I wasn’t paying attention. Mr. Dill was still laboring to get his words out, desperately trying to thank me for trying to save his life. As it got closer and closer to the time of his execution, it became harder for him to speak. The guards were making noise behind him, and I could tell he was upset that he couldn’t get his words out right, but I didn’t want to interrupt him. So I sat there and let the tears fall down my face.
The harder he tried to speak, the more I wanted to cry. The long pauses gave me too much time to think. He would never have been convicted of capital murder if he had just had the money for a decent lawyer. He would never have been sentenced to death if someone had investigated his past. It all felt tragic. His struggle to form words and his determination to express gratitude reinforced his humanity for me, and it made thinking about his impending execution unbearable. Why couldn’t they see it, too? The Supreme Court had banned the execution of people with intellectual disability, but states like Alabama refused to assess in any honest way whether the condemned are disabled. We’re supposed to sentence people fairly after fully considering their life circumstances, but instead we exploit the inability of the poor to get the legal assistance they need—all so we can kill them with less resistance.
On the phone with Mr. Dill, I thought about all of his struggles and all the terrible things he’d gone through and how his disabilities had broken him. There was no excuse for him to have shot someone, but it didn’t make sense to kill him. I began to get angry about it. 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?
I tried not to let Mr. Dill hear me crying. I tried not to show him that he was breaking my heart. He finally got his words out.
“Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y’all for trying to save me.”
When I hung up the phone that night I had a wet face and a broken heart. The lack of compassion I witnessed every day had finally ex- hausted me. I looked around my crowded office, at the stacks of rec- ords and papers, each pile filled with tragic stories, and I suddenly didn’t want to be surrounded by all this anguish and misery. As I sat there, I thought myself a fool for having tried to fix situations that were so fatally broken. It’s time to stop. I can’t do this anymore.
For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of Joe Sullivan and of Trina, Antonio, Ian, and dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, like Herbert Richardson; people broken by poverty, like Marsha Colbey; people broken by disability, like Avery Jenkins. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.
I looked at my computer and at the calendar on the wall. I looked again around my office at the stacks of files. I saw the list of our staff, which had grown to nearly forty people. And before I knew it, I was talking to myself aloud: “I can just leave. Why am I doing this?”
It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman prison. After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice.
I do what I do because I’m broken, too.
My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
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. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.
Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me some- thing that the writer Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re 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.
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 com- passion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.
I thought of the guards strapping Jimmy Dill to the gurney that very hour. I thought of the people who would cheer his death and see it as some kind of victory. I realized they were broken people, too, even if they would never admit it. So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible.
But simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.
I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were strug- gling and despairing over their situations—over the things they’d done, or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years.
I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
All of sudden, I felt stronger. I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized. I had a notion that if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable.
When I was a college student, I had a job working as a musician in a black church in a poor section of West Philadelphia. At a certain point in the service I would play the organ before the choir began to sing. The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” I never fully appreciated what he was saying until the night Jimmy Dill was executed.
From the book JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Gray, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Bryan Stevenson.