‘Just Mercy’ depicts America’s problem with mass incarcerations

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 26, 2020

Bryan Stevenson, attorney and author of “Just Mercy,” should join Atticus Finch, the iconic pursuer of social justice in “To Kill A Mockingbird, as American role models. A major difference, of course, is Stevenson did actually risk his life in southern towns for more than 30 years seeking to prevent racial injustice. Atticus should be preserved in cinema history for doing his best in the 1930s to defend one man falsely accused of a crime, but it falls short of what is required in 2020.

Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” is the basis for a current movie by the same name starring Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. They dramatically tell the story of two men, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian and Anthony Ray Hinton, each wrongfully convicted in Alabama for murders they did not commit, and Stevenson’s dogged commitment to free them and to challenge death penalty practices in the United States. The movie is an accurate depiction of about one-half of Stevenson’s 2014 book. Stevenson is gifted, courageous and tireless in discussing America’s current epidemic of mass incarcerations and excessive sentencing.

McMillian was arrested in 1987 in Monroeville, Alabama, home of “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, where the streets are still named for characters in the classic 1962 movie. Unfortunately, McMillian is from the other side of town and reportedly unaware of his town’s standing in American literature.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Just Mercy” are similar in that both Tom Robinson and Walter McMillian are hard-working, gainfully employed men whose crime is involvement with white woman, either directly or indirectly. Robinson is accused of raping a woman “who he felt sorry for” because of her family’s abuse and McMillian is the victim of a rush to solve a crime in a community where he was an outcast because of his affair with a white woman.

Both dramas have a moving, heart-breaking scene where both Stevenson and Atticus drive a visit with the prisoner’s families to tell them their legal appeals have failed. The movie “Just Mercy” captures in a touching and humane way, the inhuman injustices experienced by McMillian and Hinton and other men with whom they share death row. The prisoners experience community by sharing the trauma of awaiting execution by talking to one another cell-to-cell without being able to see one another. A tender moment is when McMillian coaches another convict to prepare for his execution with yoga-like breathing exercises; an uncomfortably disturbing moment is hearing the prisoners describe how the aroma of a human execution smells and hangs in the air for days.

Wrongful convictions are estimated to occur about 10% of the time with more than 3,000 exonerations to date in the U.S., with the average time incarcerated about nine years. Improvements in DNA technology are largely responsible for convictions being overturned. The movie “Just Mercy” focuses on the cases of grown men wrongly convicted in Alabama because of the legacy of racist thinking by judges, juries and prosecutors. The movie “Just Mercy” leaves out Stevenson’s efforts to overturn the life without possibility of parole sentences for juveniles, including 13- and 14-year-olds in nonhomicide cases. Among Stevenson’s legal accomplishments are winning four of the five cases he argued before the Supreme Court, cases prohibiting the execution of juveniles and mentally disabled.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is enjoying a resurgence on Broadway this year. The production has been modernized by reducing gender stereotypes, deleting the scene where Atticus shoots a rabid dog and adding an older Scout going off to law school. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is disturbing because Tom is wrongfully convicted and ends up dead while Atticus rides off as an iconic attorney and father. The 2019-20 version should have had Atticus explain to his children the frequency of racial injustice, and encouraged them to join a protest at the Maycomb County Courthouse.

Stevenson spoke at MU in 2016 where a major theme was the importance of gaining “proximity” to understand people and social situations. “Just Mercy,” both the book and the film, capture Stevenson’s extraordinary efforts to meet the men he was aiming to assist. Prisoners, and most of the “least, lost and lonely” among us are too often assisted by over-extended caseworkers and lawyers who don’t have the time, and maybe not the desire, to really understand their clients. Stevenson seems to be motivated by compassion for real defendants rather than solely an advocate for the principle of equal justice.

Stevenson is currently executive director of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, where he has established the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice to record and preserve the victims of slavery and lynching.

“Just Mercy” is playing in Columbia’s two big theaters at least until the end of this week. In case you miss it, there is the HBO documentary “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” available on YouTube.

It’s a deep hole when the homeless fall through the cracks

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, January 12, 2020

What is a near-homeless man to do?

A few weeks ago, I was reacquainted a with a near-homeless guy — let’s call him Thomas — whom I first met about three years ago at Room at the Inn.
He came to Missouri to care for his grandmother, who has since passed away. He has had several low-skill jobs over the years. He reminds me of about a dozen other guys, and a couple of women, I have met who fall through the cracks of Columbia’s social services.

While they may not have “had it all,” they were once independent and had some sort of “home.” I saw Thomas last May when he called to me from across the street. He ran over and told me about a potential job. I gave him a ride and a few dollars for work clothes so he could go to the job interview.

He got the job. Life was looking up until he was hit by a car that failed to stop at an intersection, for which there is a police report.

He was left with several physical problems that prevent him from working and getting around on a bike. He can’t walk more than 50 feet and looks unable and unkempt.

Thomas was treated at a local hospital for the accident-related injuries and then turned out without warm clothes. “I was quivering like a fish out of water,” he told me. City buses were not in service — and this is not the first I’ve heard of this problem.

Thomas is now couch surfing. He says, “it’s unsatisfactory, but I’m making the best of it because it’s warm.” He makes a little money cleaning up outside a fast food restaurant. Thomas has asked me for money so he could eat, and I have given a few dollars each time. I have never seen him flying a sign (i.e. panhandling). I have not detected alcohol or drugs, but I have little experience with that.

Columbia should be grateful for the Turning Point day center, the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, the “housing first” effort and regular beds at Harbor House, the emergency shelter at True North and the seasonal shelter Room at the Inn.

I know former guests of Room at the Inn, formerly homeless men and women, who now have housing. There are many people who have been nourished at Loaves and Fishes through the efforts of hundreds of volunteers.
I vote for expanding all these needed services, but I know that just increasing the number and size of services is not enough.

Thomas hasn’t been able to fully benefit from these services because he hasn’t connected with another human who can do what he needs. What he needs most is transportation and a supportive environment such as a family, a church and perhaps some neighbors.

It’s easy to blame him. Suppose I became concerned that I had developed an addiction of one form or another. Would I know what to do or where to go for treatment? If you read about me in the newspaper, you would say, “But there is Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. There is the Employee Assistance Program and the Health Department. How didn’t he know? Why didn’t he ask someone?” Like many, if not most people, I wouldn’t know what to do because of my temperament, my lack of experience and my uncertainty and fear.

Thomas needs a lawyer to settle his injury case and someone to help him through the disability maze. He has visited several plaintiff lawyers, but they tell him they are too busy. Lawyers and potential employers would have difficulty reaching him, because he no longer has a phone or an address.

Thomas told me “they probably can’t make much money helping a poor black man.” I know about the inadequate public defender services in Missouri, but the lack of legal services to allow poor people to get civil justice keeps them poor.
My fear is that the driver who hit Thomas is uninsured or of low income. If so, Thomas will be among the permanently poor.

If his present couch surfing host gets tired of him, or moves, Thomas is back to Room at the Inn in the winter and then back to the streets, still carrying his pain. Being unsheltered is being unconnected. More than once I have heard homeless adults shout, “I have NO place to go” when a volunteer at Loaves and Fishes or Room at the Inn, such as myself, or a security guard at the public library nudges them at closing time.

Thomas told me, “All I want is peace.” He added “maybe it’s an age thing. My grandma used to say that. Back then, I didn’t know what peace she was looking for, but now I do. I need a steady place to stay, a job, my own stuff — then I will have peace.”

Last Sunday I gave Thomas another ride. He had been in so much pain, he called 911 and was treated overnight at a local hospital again. When he was discharged, he was 3.8 miles from his couch. And buses don’t run on Sunday.

When I think back on the hundreds of men and women who have passed through Room at the Inn, my eyes tell me that most are “transitional” like Thomas. A little of the right help, at the right time, would get them back on their feet and on a path of independence. There is not much income for a law firm to provide legal services to the poor, and buses don’t run on Sunday.

What’s a near-homeless man to do?