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The Story of Walter McMillian’s Wrongful Conviction, in Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy”

Just Mercy is a memoir that amasses and distinguishes the legal accounts of an activist lawyer’s [Bryan Stevenson] struggle against legal injustice. Stevenson was born into a low-income family living in a racially segregated community in Delaware. He made it to Harvard Law School after successfully graduating from Eastern College that is present day Eastern University. In his legal practice, Bryan Stevenson started representing poor clients in Georgia and later in Alabama, where he became a co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. The book, Just Mercy, is founded mainly on the works of the Equal Justice Initiative’s team and the poor clients that Stevenson represented in his line of duty as a lawyer and activist.

The story of Walter McMillian forms the book’s backbone. The lawyer started representing McMillian in the late 1980s after he was put on death row for the murder of an eighteen-year-old white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. He was convicted of the capital crime and put on death row despite the fact that he was completely innocent. Various factors played a crucial and influential role in the wrongful conviction and the death row sentence. However, McMillian was exonerated in 1993. This paper analyzes and discusses the dynamics and nature of the events surrounding Walter McMillian’s wrongful conviction. It will therefore deeply examine the main factors that led to the conviction of an innocent man. On the same note, the paper will also analyze the judicial system in a bid to determine whether the underlying forces behind the unfair judicial verdict may have stemmed from the system’s adversarial nature.


Walter McMillian is a man of color who cut timber to make a living. He had never been on the wrong side of the law before (36). However, he once had an affair with a white woman, and this somehow contributed to his tribulations. His ordeal and conviction is outrageous and unwarranted and appears as a conspiracy and propagation of racial discrimination against blacks. The involved officers are white. Additionally, the case is handled by an all-white jury and a white judge, Robert E. Lee Key. The murder of the white woman, Rhonda Morrison, happened in Alabama, which coincidentally is Judge Lee’s hometown.

However, at the time of the murder, McMillian was at home with family and local parishioners selling fish fry for the church-fundraiser all day long. Many people, including a police officer, were also in attendance and could, therefore, confirm McMillian’s presence in the event and absence at the crime scene. Nevertheless, the authorities pin the case against McMillian without concrete evidence. They ignore the eyewitnesses who were with him at the fund-raiser event when the murder was allegedly committed. Therefore, prosecutors maliciously suppress vital testimonies, and on top of that, find false informants who come to court and testify against Walter McMillian.

The only evidence that links McMillian to the murder of Morrison is a testimony by a white career criminal, Ralph Myers.  He pleaded guilty to being a conspirator in the murder to get a lenient sentence for the murder of another woman that he had committed. The evidence also includes a fabricated testimony by Hook, who affirms Myer’s made-up accusations. Hook claims to have seen McMillian’s truck driving from the building where Morrison was killed and at the alleged crime time (Stevenson).



Consequently, following the events and information provided by the prosecution, McMillian is put on death row in the state penitentiary. The members of the jury find him guilty and propose a sentence of life in prison. However, the judge, Robert E. Lee Key, decides to convert this sentence into a graver one. In this case, Judge Lee hands McMillian a capital punishment before trial. The Alabama law gave presiding judge the authority to change a jury’s recommendation. At this point, it becomes clear to the reader and onlookers that indeed racial injustice exists within the United States’ judicial system (Edwards).

Stevenson is angered by the death sentence. It makes him think of the pain and psychological torture that convicts such as McMillian, their families, and the communities suffer due to adverse judicial sentences. Perhaps this is one endemic problem in the legal system that warrants reforms and the attention of legal activists. After the conviction, Bryan Stevenson decides to take up the case, much to the dismay of Judge Lee. He even calls Stevenson, asking him to withdraw from the case and let it be handled by another lawyer from outside Alabama who is not a member of the Alabama bar; citing that McMillian may be a “Dixie Mafia” (Stevenson 16-17).

In 1991, McMillian appeals the conviction and death sentence, but unfortunately, the sentence is affirmed. Relentlessly, he appeals again in February 1993, and this time round, the conviction and death sentence is reversed and a fresh trial is ordered. It becomes apparent that indeed as Stevenson puts it, “Walter McMillian had never met Ralph Myers, let alone committed two murders with him” as the criminal had told the court (Stevenson 24). This new trial sees McMillian exonerated on 2nd March 1993.



During the appeal trial, grave constitutional violation is discovered to be the primary factor that led to McMillian’s arrest and conviction. This was propagated in the form of personal differences, witness coercion, evidence fabrication, racial discrimination, and police negligence. As Stevenson puts it, Simon Benson- the ABI lead investigator, Sheriff Thomas Tate, and Larry Ikner-the district attorney’s investigator failed to do a comprehensive investigation of the charges against McMillian. Instead, they chose to arrest him on a pretextual charge based on the allegations of an illiterate attention seeker who was also a pathological liar and probably psychologically disturbed.

In addition to the murder charge, McMillian was charged with sodomy. Stevenson says in more than one instance that the sheriff “unleashed a torrent of racial slurs and threats” towards McMillian (Stevenson 34). A clear indication that racial discrimination was one of the forces behind McMillian’s wrongful arrest and conviction. A statement by the Sheriff at the time of arrest is particularly explicit in its portrayal of racial discrimination. Tate says, “we’re going to keep all you niggers [blacks] from running around with these white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile” (34). What more is required to prove that the conviction was prejudiced and racially instigated from the onset!

The prosecution hid vital evidence. This includes accounts of eye witnesses who had spent an entire day with Walter at home, located eleven miles from the crime scene; and another one who had seen the victim alive after the time that the prosecution alleges McMillian committed the murder. Records of Myer’s statements prove to be inconsistent and at one point, he complains that the officers are forcing him to implicate himself and McMillian in a murder that none of them committed.



By reading Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” and the story of Walter McMillian in particular, it becomes apparent that his story is just one of the many that have not yet been accounted for. Stevenson, being the author and legal representative of McMillian, treads a tricky path when it comes to illustrating how bad the system is or how good it feels to triumph amidst unfair and heartbreaking tribulations. In trying to determine the impact that the law has on a society, Rosenberg, examines whether the same institution that makes the law also influences the impact.

The scholar concludes that indeed, the institution has a role to play, and in one way or the other, influences the outcome and impact. When these institutions fail to act accordingly, then the law will not take effect.The scholar, gives an example of the Southern States where the court ordered an end to the existing segregation, but the seclusion was never brought to a stop because the Supreme Court contributed nothing to ending it (Rosenberg 582). The story of Walter McMillian is a mere microcosm of the many victims that are wrongly convicted within the United States judicial system.

Stevenson claims that even after some reforms within the system were made in the 1970s and early 1980s, despicable conditions, unfair treatment, and violence from the guards against the jail and prison inmates continue to claim the lives of hundreds of prisoners each year (Stevenson 27). Some of these were, just like McMillian, unlucky victims of an unfair judicial system. On the same note, the first round of appeal judges refused to grant relief to the convict despite the presentation of concrete evidence showing that the death sentence was erroneous and underserved.



It takes six long years for Stevenson and his legal team to get justice and exoneration for their innocent death row convict. This goes on to portray the judicial system as one that is afraid of confronting its errors and mistakes. The first appeal judges are afraid of correcting the erroneous mistakes that were made by their colleagues and members of the judicial system. Merry argues that the crucial function of law is to order life by intervening in times of conflict or disputes when ordinary people come to the law seeking help (Merry).

However, the law, in this case, has failed. The murder and indictment raise a lot of conflicts. The whites want someone arrested and convicted at any cost. They pressurize and criticize the judicial system, district attorney’s office, and the sheriff’s team act on the matter.  On the other hand, the blacks want justice for one of their own whom they are sure is innocent of all charges. They go to the authorities seeking the release of McMillian. They are sure that Walter neither murdered Morrison nor sodomized Myers and call upon the sheriff and his team to conduct proper investigations into the matter (Stevenson 36).

Unfortunately, the law enforcers turn a deaf ear to this ordinary people and decide to forge forward with their fabricated evidence. This form of treatment against the colored people is what Merry refers to as rhetoric criminalization. In this case, the scholar argues that the targeted population is more often than not, viewed as vicious, indolent, degraded, and licentious, and racially degraded (Merry 1). This claim is depicted in the manner in which the whites treat the minority blacks in the courtrooms, prisons, and the community as well.



Edward claims that the power of the criminal law to influence people’s conduct may take form of normative or “coercive crime control mechanisms” (Edward 51). In McMillian’s case, the power of the criminal law is employed, not to control crime, but to instigate a felony in the form of unfair conviction of the innocent. As much as the reader may want to overlook the possibility of racial influence in this matter, it is impossible, because discrimination against the blacks is a dominant theme in the cases recounted by Stevenson.

To sum it up, the case of Walter McMillian in Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” explicitly presents him as a victim of the judicial system whose predicament is worsened by the fact that he is black. The themes of constitutional violation, unfair conviction, legal activism, and racial discrimination are prevalent throughout. In a country where people are promised equal and fair treatment regardless of their gender or racial identity, Stevenson, through McMillian, shows the gory side of the reality that exists within the United States’ judicial system. A system that offers justice to some and victimizes others.

The story ought to work as an awakening call to all the parties and institutions involved in the legal and justice system. It is a challenge to all these authorities to look into areas within the judicial system that need reforms and clean up. Only then will the system ensure that justice and fairness are served to all without fear or favor. Therefore, the very crucial message of “Just Mercy” has been hammered home by the dramatic example of a man who just refuses to sit in silence and stomach injustices. Stevenson and McMillian are proof that evil and injustice can be overcome, a difference can be made, and hope should not be lost despite the horrible circumstances.



Works Cited

Edwards, Mark A. “Law and the parameters of acceptable deviance.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (2006): 49-100. Print.

Meer, Engle. S. “The criminalization of everyday life.” Everyday practices and trouble cases 2 (1998). Print.

Rosenberg Gerald, N. “The hollow hope: Can courts bring about social change.” The University of Chicago, Chicago and London (1991). Print.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption. Spiegel &Grau, 2014. Print.



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