This is a stunning movie with historical significance that at times left me crying as I buried my face in my hands.
With Just Mercy, Director Destin Daniel Cretton brings us the story of the early career of renowned death penalty attorney Bryan Stevenson. A Harvard graduate, Mr. Stevenson traveled to Alabama where he opened a small law firm so that he could try to help those awaiting execution on death row.
An extraordinarily decent man with no interest in making money in the legal system, he simply sought to save human beings who were wrongly convicted. As the title of the film suggests, he thought that fairness and mercy had to play a role in our criminal justice system.
Coming off his incredible performances in Fruitvale Station (2013), the Creed films (2015 and 2018) and Black Panther (2018), Michael B. Jordan gives a quietly powerful performance as Mr. Stevenson. As he explores every document in a death penalty case, he is not intimidated by either judges or prosecutors as he confronts them to acknowledge critical mistakes in a case that they handled. My wife, Ms. Monica Foster, has become a personal friend of Mr. Stevenson, and regardless of your view of the death penalty you can’t help but admire him.
In addition, Brie Larson is again superb in her role as Mr. Stevenson’s associate Eva Ansley. A dedicated, foul-mouthed young woman, you should never forget Ms. Larson’s lovely performance as the kidnapped mother in Room (2015).
Jamie Foxx gives his best performance since Ray (2004) and Django Unchained (2012), here playing Walter McMillian, the death row inmate who was convicted on perjured testimony. As you watch Mr. Foxx’s character interact with other death row inmates, you find yourself emotionally rooting for him as Mr. Stevenson gradually provides him a reason to care.
Though Tim Blake Nelson gives a compelling performance as a prison inmate who was compelled to give false testimony as the alleged sole eye witness at McMillian’s trial, I was overwhelmed by the performance of Rob Morgan as the death row inmate Herbert Richardson. [SPOILER ALERT!] Though Mr. Stevenson could not save him despite his noble efforts, I was crushed as I watched him die in the electric chair.
Wiping tears away to avoid irritating other movie goers, Richardson’s death took me back to my client Gregory Resnover becoming the last Hoosier to die in the electric chair in 1994. Though I and my co-counsel Ms. Foster, Ms. Rhonda Long-Sharp and Mr. Joe Cleary only got involved in Mr. Resnover’s case after his appeals were exhausted, we discovered critical errors that even convinced the two lawyers who prosecuted him at trial, Mr. Greg Garrison and Mr. David Cook, to join us in asking that his death sentence be set aside.
Let me just say that Mr. Resnover, an African American, was tried in front of a white judge and an all-white jury. His subsequent appeal was handled by a white public defender with no experience with capital cases, and she permitted a false statement of facts set out in the Attorney General’s appeal briefs to be adopted at every appellate level to justify his conviction.
We visited Mr. Resnover frequently on death row in Michigan City, Indiana, and we did so on the day that he was executed. To add to the horror, we were forced to stand behind a line and talk to him where we couldn’t even embrace him at our last meeting.
I was the one lawyer who sat in chairs as we watched our client die. The electric chair itself was so faulty that they had to twice apply electricity which resulted in a small flame arising from his hooded body as smoke filled the room. All of us, including his relatives, collapsed in our seats as the smell of burnt human flesh filled the room.
Though we couldn’t save the life of an innocent man wrongly convicted, the entire ordeal persuaded the Indiana Legislature to subsequently eliminate the electric chair as a form of capital punishment in Indiana. I am at least comforted that Mr. Resnover’s death resulted in his contribution to ending such suffering for any other Hoosier citizens.
Let me close with reference to a card I received from Mr. Resnover two months before his death. On the front of it is a picture of him standing with his family in prison, and the following is what he wrote to me on the flip side of the card: “Words can not begin to describe what the years of knowing you have meant to me. So I won’t try. Let me simply say that I am grateful to the Almightly Creator for permitting our paths to cross. With Love, your friend, AJAMU”
While Just Mercy is a reminder to all lawyers of the horrible injustice that permeates many capital cases, I was forced to quit doing death penalty work because my devastating experience stayed with me despite my best efforts to try and forget it. In the end, I compared it to baseball players who are forced to quit because they simply took “one too many fast balls to the head.”
Mr. Stevenson is to be admired for his extraordinary dedication that has lead to many innocent people being freed from death row, and he shall always occupy a special spot in my heart.