Just Mercy (and Chocolate Milkshakes)

Bryan Stevenson on the Ripples of Grace

Sam Bush / 7.16.20

For the past few years, so many people have suggested I read the book Just Mercy that I became determined to never read it, as an act of defiance. All I can say is that I’m thankful I finally joined the parade. The 2014 bestseller is the remarkable story of Bryan Stevenson, a young attorney dedicated to defending the wrongly condemned in Alabama in the early 90s. Along with his staff at the Equal Justice Initiative, he is responsible for helping more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and for banning mandatory life sentences for children 17 or younger.

Stevenson’s compassion for those who are blamed too quickly and too severely is one rooted in the doctrine of grace. What is particularly powerful is the way he devotes his time and attention to each of his clients, not because they are a part of his greater cause, but because each of them actually matters to him.

Stevenson once represented a man on death row named Avery Jenkins, a man who suffers severe mental illness. On his way into the prison for his visitation, Stevenson, who is black, notices a pickup truck parked outside, covered with Confederate flag decals and inflammatory bumper stickers. Once inside, a correctional officer is noticeably hostile towards him, insisting that he be strip-searched and making up a long list of unnecessary protocols that purposely keep Stevenson from his visit with Jenkins. When he finally allows Stevenson to enter the visitation room, the correctional officer grabs his arm and says, “Did you happen to see a truck with a lot of bumper stickers, flags, and a gun rack?” Stevenson responds, yes, he saw the truck. The officer’s face hardens as he speaks: “I want you to know, that’s my truck.”

Fast forward to Avery Jenkins’ hearing, where Stevenson makes a deeply convincing case that Jenkins’ crime can be better understood as a result of the extreme abuse he suffered as a child. Jenkins’ father was murdered before he was born and his mother died of a drug overdose when he was a year old. Before he turned eight, he had been in nineteen different foster homes, many of which involved neglect and severe mistreatment. Stevenson writes:

I argued to the judge that not taking Avery’s mental health issues into consideration at trial was as cruel as saying to someone who has lost his legs, “You must climb these stairs with no assistance, and if you don’t, you’re just lazy.” Or to say to someone who is blind, “You should get across this busy interstate highway unaided, or you’re just cowardly.”

A month after the hearing, Stevenson pays another visit to the prison and is welcomed by the same correctional officer who’s whole attitude has changed. He doesn’t require anything of Stevenson and has even made preparations so that Stevenson can just walk right in. “I saw you coming and signed your name in for you. I’ve taken care of it,” he says. The officer seems nervous. He then says:

Hey, um, I’d like to tell you something. I took Avery to court for his hearing and was down there with y’all for those three days and, well, I want you to know that I was listening. I came up in foster care, too. They moved me around like I wasn’t wanted nowhere. I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you were saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse.

He stops to wipe the sweat off his brow and Stevenson notices for the first time a Confederate flag tattooed on his arm.

You know, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s good what you’re doing. I got so angry coming up that there were plenty of times when I really wanted to hurt somebody, just because I was angry.

The story ends with a confession from the correctional officer. By that time, it was well known at the prison that Avery Jenkins was obsessed with chocolate milkshakes. Even during Stevenson’s first visitation, Jenkins’ first question for his defense attorney was, “Did you bring me a chocolate milkshake?” Throughout Jenkins’ time in prison, it remained his top priority, but Stevenson was never permitted to bring one to Jenkins due to prison policy. At the end of their conversation, the correctional officer says this:

Listen, I did something I probably wasn’t supposed to do, but I want you to know about it. On the trip back down here after court on that last day—well, I know how Avery is, you know. Well anyway, I just want you to know that I took an exit off the interstate on the way back. And, well, I took him to a Wendy’s, and I bought him a chocolate milkshake.

Stevenson never saw the correctional officer again, but was told that he had quit working at the prison shortly after Avery Jenkins’ hearing.

The gift of grace is not like the trespass. Like a stone thrown in a calm pond, the effects of sin reverberate beyond the splash, spreading out into communities and a nation. But the ripples that flow from grace are stronger. They spread out further than any sin, transforming the world itself in ways unseen and unimaginable.