UNDERSTANDING THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE MOVIE "JUST MERCY" THROUGH JOHN RAWLS' THEORY OF JUSTICE
Updated: Feb 24
Just Mercy, a 2019 American movie, follows the life of a real-life civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, and his fight to bring justice for the wrongfully convicted and incarcerated African American men by providing them with proper legal representation. Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Rights Initiative and the author of the book, Mercy, on which the movie is based. The movie outlines America’s racial bias and inequality in its criminal justice system that has led to countless instances of injustice. Systematic and Economic Injustice, mass incarceration, social justice, policing, and racial inequality are a few important themes focused on in the movie.
The premise of the movie revolves around a particular case of Walter McMillian, played by two-time Oscar winner Jamie Fox, who is falsely accused of murdering a white woman and is sentenced to death without a fair trial. Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B Jordan, represents him in a legal battle to prove his innocence while also mapping his journey of the Equal Rights Initiative.
It is worth noting that there are parallel references throughout the movie, which is based in Monroeville, Alabama, with Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning 1960 book- ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which is based in a fictitious town- Maycomb in Alabama. The movie shows how the county is proud of the book with buildings named after its author, has its museum and people bragging about their town’s association with Harper Lee. The other reason for the constant referencing is the similarities in the cases of both Lee’s book and the movie- the lead, Atticus Finch, is defending a black man falsely accused of rape of a white woman. More importantly, Bryan Stevenson is disgusted with this false sense of pride while failing to understand Lee’s message about racial violence and presumption of guilt based on colour, as the court sentenced Walter McMillian to death even though there was no concrete evidence connecting him to the murder.
The constant reminder of Lee’s novel in the movie is to draw parallels with Walter McMillian’s case and to showcase the hypocrisy and the false sense of pride that the people have with the author being based from there. The only similarity between the two is the presence of racial bias. What it also aims to say is that while Atticus Finch was a made-up fictional character, Bryan Stevenson is quite real.
Having said that, the main aspect of the movie is about how justice is interpreted to everyone, and if it is equal and fair to everyone. The movie forces one to ask the question, does the US justice system treat people differently based on the colour of their skin and where they stand on the economic ladder?
Most philosophers before Rawls defended democratic principles based on utilitarianism, which meant the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people. The biggest objection to theories like Utilitarianism is that the greatest well-being of the majority is often achieved by neglecting the rights of the minority. The theory has been, is, and will be used to justify something like slavery, which in the context of the movie is significant as the plot of the movie takes place in the southern state of Alabama.
In his Theory of Justice, Rawls looks at justice in a non-utilitarian way, where it is defined and characterized by fairness, equity, and individual rights. Rawls’ characteristic of fairness injustice is especially important in Just Mercy, as Bryan Stevenson believes that the American justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. It is sufficiently clear that wealth shapes the outcomes and judgments; not culpability.
The inequality is deeper in the case of the intersectionality of race and economic status. one out of three African-American men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, prison, on probation, or parole. Another shocking perspective is that 50-60% of all young men of colour from urban cities in the U.S. are caught under similar conditions. This shows that the justice system is not only shaped by wealth but also by race. The levels of inequality depict the skewed access to justice for different strata of society; be it in the form of policing, the lead-up to the court judgment, or the kind of sentencing.
In the context of the movie, we saw Walter McMillian being ambushed by the Sherriff and other white officers for a murder he didn’t commit and was sentenced to death without fair trial notwithstanding evidence that proved otherwise. When Bryan questioned Walter why he didn’t complain about the fast-paced judgment and not having given a fair trial, he replies- “You don’t [know] what it is down here. When you’re guilty from the moment you are born. And you can buddy up with these white folks, and make them laugh, and try to make them like you, whatever that is. And you say, “Yes, sir. No, ma’am,” but when it’s your turn, they ain’t got to have no fingerprints, no evidence, and the only witness they got made the whole thing up. And none of that matter when all y’all think is that I look like a man who could kill somebody.”
The consequences of such a justice system lead to a series of issues ranging from political, social, and life and death as well. In the state of Alabama, 34% of the African-American population has permanently lost the right to vote because of mass incarceration, a lot of them for petty crimes and false accusations. They lose their social life as getting a job becomes an extremely difficult thing with a criminal record.
But perhaps the biggest consequence of it is the death penalty aspect of the justice system. Any conversation about the death penalty usually revolves around the question- “Do criminals deserve to die for the crimes they have committed?” to which the instinctive answer has been ‘Yes, depending on the severity of the crime’. But Bryan Stevenson adds to that question by asking- “But do we deserve to kill?” The premise behind the question of Bryan Stevenson is fascinating because of the death penalty system in America. It has been defined by errors. It was found out that one out of every nine individuals who have been executed are innocent. On a statistical level, it is a strikingly big error rate. To put things into another context, if one out of every 9 planes crashed, people would have stopped flying altogether! Yet there is a stunning silence on the continuation of death penalties in the justice system albeit with significant error rates.
The possible explanation for this is that for the majority of the people, it’s not a risk that they have to live with. It was and will never be a problem for the majority as it does not affect them or it’s not their struggle. The current statistics in the U.S. for the death penalty suggest that if the victim is white, you are 11 times more likely to get the death penalty than when the victim is black, and when the victim is white and the defendant is black, you are 22 times more likely to get the death penalty. What this means is, with the error rate of the death penalty being so high, there is a high chance that an innocent African-American man will be sentenced to death and executed. This is precisely why a concept like Utilitarianism shouldn’t exist in a liberal and secular democracy. The majority are not bothered by the death penalty in the justice system and its appalling error rate because it does not concern them.
Another way to understand this is by doing John Rawls’ experiment known as the ‘Veil of Ignorance’. In this experiment, a hypothetical situation is imagined where a group of rational individuals are rendered ignorant of all the social and economic aspects of themselves, including race, religion, education, sex, etc., and are then asked to decide on a particular policy in a political institution that will govern everyone. Rawls argues that behind this Veil of Ignorance, the group will unanimously reject utilitarianism, as no member of the group would know whether he or she belonged to the minority whose rights were being neglected for the wellbeing of the majority, but would instead make a rational decision where the policy or law equitably helps everyone, especially those who are the least well off.
In the context of the topic, it can be derived that the group behind the Veil of Ignorance would make the rational choice of striking down the death penalty given its error rate and bias towards a particular race. The reason there would be that the group would not know if they are white or black, rich or poor, man or woman; and there is a probability that he or she is a poor African American, who according to the statistics, might be executed even if innocent. It was the lack of this experiment that we saw the arrest and death sentence of Walter McMillian in the movie.
What makes this fascinating is the role of history in defining a country’s justice system. Recent history ideally should play a part in how justice is accessible to different strata of society. To understand this better, one only has to look into the reason why Germany does not have the death penalty in their justice system. Given their history, it would be unconscionable to engage in the systematic killing of human beings in the twenty-first century, especially if the ones being executed were disproportionately Jewish. It would bother a lot of people knowing that the modern state of Germany is executing people. Yet the world is okay with the southern states of the United States such as Alabama, the place where this movie is based, having the death penalty in place given their history of oppressing the Black community through slavery, violence and torture.
The movie ultimately ends with Walter McMillian clearing all charges on him through an appeal to the highest court, six years after his arrest. What it also told us is the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and was on death row for 28 years before being cleared of all charges with the help of Bryan Stevenson as his lawyer. In a peace and justice summit, where Anthony was the speaker, he said, “It was lynching, a legal lynching, but a lynching all the same, my only crime was being born black, or being born black in Alabama.”
Bryan Stevenson and his organization have achieved the reversal, relief, or release of over 135 wrongly convicted prisoners from their death penalty, and won relief for hundreds of others who were wrongfully convicted or unfairly sentenced. The National Registry of Exonerations listed 1,900 defendants who were convicted of crimes and later exonerated because they were innocent — 47 per cent of them were Black.
The concluding scene of the movie has him appealing for the removal of the death penalty, as it is not only ethically wrong but also unfair, and its existence will increase the racial divide. In bringing Rawls’ Theory of Justice to analyse the movie, it would be fair to derive from it that given its nature of affecting the least well off, it must be abolished as it does nothing for those who have been victimized nor does it help bring justice.
As Bryan Stevenson aptly says in the end, “In many parts of the world, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. [However] In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”
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About the author: Rakshan S Kalmady, 2nd Year MA in Public Policy Student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy