Have Mercy

I want to share an episode of the Criminal podcast that came out yesterday (June 17), because it speaks to the reaction people have been having to the shooting in Orlando. I know you all might not listen to it, so I’m taking the liberty of writing out some of the more salient points made by the show’s guest, Bryan Stevenson, below. But it’s only 25 minutes, so if you’re stuck in traffic or going for a bit a drive, I hope you will play it through. If nothing else, host Phoebe Judge has an incredibly soothing voice.

Stevenson: I don’t think the death penalty in America can be resolved by asking if people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. I think the threshold question is, Do we deserve to kill? We make terrible mistakes … For every nine people we’ve executed in this country, we’ve now identified one innocent person on death row. It is a shameful rate of error. If for every nine planes that took off, one crashed, no one would fly.

Judge: Have you met anyone in all of your time who you’ve thought is evil? Who thought, I don’t wanna waste my time saving this person?

Stevenson: No. I’ve met people who are severely mentally ill; I’ve met people for whom it’s likely they will never be able to get out of prison because they’re dealing with disabilities or challenges that won’t make it safe for them to get out of jail or prison, but I’ve never met anybody who I think is beyond hope, or beyond redemption, or whose life doesn’t matter. I think we have to judge our commitment to the rule of law — our commitment to human rights can’t be measured by how we treat people who impress us, by how we treat people who we like, how we treat the rich, the powerful and the privileged. We have to judge our commitment to justice, to the rule of law to human rights by not looking at how we treat the rich, the powerful and the privileged, we have look at how we treat the disfavored, the disabled, the condemned. I mean, it’s easy to be just to people you like, people you favor. It’s easy to be compassionate toward people you have a lot of respect for. But it’s not really mercy if you give if to the people who deserve it. Mercy is mercy when it’s given to the undeserving. So I’ve never met anybody about whom I’ve said, Oh no, they can’t get mercy. They don’t deserve it. That’s what mercy’s about. 

Judge: Your grandfather was murdered.

Stevenson: That’s right. When I was 16, my grandfather was stabbed to death in Philadelphia by several young men who broke into his apartment to try to steal a TV, and it was devastating to our family; my mother was grief-stricken. … It was deeply, deeply challenging to imagine this 86-year-old man being stabbed to death by a lot of reckless young  teens. But what was fascinating was, my grandmother, she was less interested in what punishment these young men would receive. She wanted to talk about why or how anyone could be in a place in life that they would think that that’s something that they could do. And if she could do anything, she wanted to create a world where children didn’t run around stabbing old men in low-income projects just for a TV. And she wanted us to look beyond these young men and try to understand something more important about what’s happening in a world where kids are born into violent families; they live in violent neighborhoods, they go to violent schools and become violent people by the time they’re teenagers — and how do we change that kind of world? And that’s motivated my work as much as anything.




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