A young lawyer establishes a legal practice, and takes on the case of a man wrongly convicted for murder.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In "'I Am Not An Inmate ... I Am A Man. And I Have Potential,'" several former inmates discuss the rehabilitative process by which they learned to grow, mature, and redefine their identities.
Introduce this informational text before students begin reading the book, in order to explore the impact that prison has on inmates and former inmates. As students read Just Mercy, have them consider how Stevenson’s clients are affected by their time in prison. How do factors such as their gender, race, age, or class contribute to how they are treated in prison as well as their experiences when they leave prison?
In “The Scottsboro Boys,” Jessica McBirney discusses the historic event in which nine black boys were wrongfully accused and convicted of assault.
Introduce this text after Chapter 3, when Walter McMillian is wrongly convicted of murder. The Scottsboro boys were nine African American teenagers who were also wrongly convicted and imprisoned. Ask students to discuss how the Scottsboro and McMillian cases reveal the racial inequality present in the justice system. In what ways were the trials of the Scottsboro boys and McMillian unfair? Why do students think that the juries were so quick to condemn the men in the two texts?
The informational text “The Science of Solitary Confinement” explores the various ways in which inmates are impacted by solitary confinement.
Have students read this text on solitary confinement once they finish Chapter 2, when Stevenson discusses prison’s inhumane conditions. Ask students to compare how the two texts depict solitary confinement. How does solitary confinement permanently impact prisoners? How do students think the punishment further prevents prisoners from being able to successfully re-enter society when they leave prison?
In Sonia Sanchez’s poem “This Is Not a Small Voice,” the speaker asserts the strength and love of a collective set of people.
Introduce this poem, on the power of a collective voice, after Chapter 9, when McMillian’s family, friends, and community come out to support him during his hearing. How does the narrator assert their strength and love in the poem? How does this compare to the strength and support Mrs. Williams shows when she declares, “I’m here” during McMillian’s hearing? How do both the poem and the chapter emphasize the strength of community?
This NPR news transcript discusses whether the Supreme Court will accept the “insanity defense” when a schizophrenic man shoots an officer.
Have students read this interview, about a mentally ill man sentenced to life in prison, after they finish Chapter 10. In this chapter Stevenson discusses the court’s inability to appropriately consider mental health when convicting people. Have students compare Eric Clark’s experiences with the justice system with Avery Jenkins’ experiences. What role did their unstable mental states play when they committed murder? How would you claim that either man was aware or unaware of their actions or the extent of the consequences? How does Clark’s mother’s views on sentencing mentally ill individuals compare to Stevenson’s views?
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a groundbreaking short story from 1892 told through journal entries that chronicles a woman’s struggle in dealing with male physicians who will not take her illness seriously.
Introduce this short story after students finish Chapter 12, when Stevenson discusses the justice system’s unfair treatment of women and mothers. In the short story, a woman’s mental health deteriorates after giving birth. Ask students to discuss how the women in the two texts are judged based on whether or not they are considered “good” mothers. Why does the narrator’s mental health diminish in “The Yellow Wallpaper”? How does this compare to the causes behind the deteriorating mental health of the mothers wrongly convicted of murder? In what ways are the women taken advantage of in the two texts?
“Do Juvenile Killers Deserve Life Behind Bars?” is a news article that offers insight into the United States’ juvenile criminal justice system, which often provides extreme punishments to adolescents.
Have students read this text after they finish Chapter 14, when Stevenson discusses the juveniles he worked with who had been sentenced to life in prison. Totenberg’s text discusses whether juveniles should be sentenced to life in prison. Ask students to discuss how Stevenson’s argument, against sentencing juveniles to life in prison, is presented in the two texts. How do the examples of successfully rehabilitated inmates, who were charged with homicide in their youth, contribute to Stevenson’s argument? Ask students to discuss why the threat of life in prison doesn’t deter some juveniles from committing serious crimes.
Holocaust survivor Eva Kor meets former Nazi on trial, and offers powerful words about forgiveness, taking back power, and how to move forward.
Have students read this text, about a Holocaust victim’s decision to forgive a Nazi guard, after they finish Just Mercy. Ask students to compare Eva Mozes Kor’s ability to forgive a guard at Auschwitz with McMillian’s ability to forgive the people that wrongly convicted him. How do students think that Kor and McMillian’s ability to forgive others improved their lives after their imprisonment?