A Review Of Just Mercy – And the Forgotten Defendants Who Receive No Attention and No Justice

I finally got around to watching the acclaimed true-story legal drama, Just Mercy, which highlights the work of attorney Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to inmates who have been wrongfully convicted or sentenced. The movie centers around Stevenson’s efforts to exonerate Walter McMillan, a Death Row inmate convicted of the murder of a young white woman in Alabama in the late 1980s. The story while a powerful and uplifting one which celebrates the release of an innocent man so wronged by a racist sheriff, prosecutor, judge and jury – but ignores a much bigger issue within the criminal justice system.  Too often, our system denies rights to the not necessarily innocent defendants, denies due process to those who society cringes at, whose release would not result in a Hollywood movie even though their circumstances could also have been marred by an overzealous prosecutor or cop.

Why We Loved Just Mercy

The visceral appeal of the McMillan injustice is clear enough: Black man accused of a horrific murder of a white girl in the deep south; despite virtually no evidence linking him to the crime, McMillan was railroaded by a racist prosecutor and sheriff who ignored a multitude of Black alibi witnesses and instead presented fabricated witness testimony by a convict who had been threatened by said crooked sheriff; Black, Harvard-educated true believer defense lawyer turns down big bucks law firms to work on behalf of Death Row inmates for peanuts; the young defense lawyer goes through his client’s case file and happens upon a tape recording of the convict’s first debriefing by the sheriff and hears his strong denial that he knew anything about the murder and that any such testimony would be perjury.  Of course this tape was not disclosed to the defense prior to McMillan’s two day trial.  After some litigation and the State’s initial refusal to join in the obvious motion to dismiss the charges, the prosecutor does the right thing and the case is dismissed and McMillan is sprung, free to rejoin his wife and children on the outside. Tears and applause ensue.

This scenario – the innocent man being railroaded by racist law enforcement, judge and jury before being saved by a zealous advocate – is a popularly supported theme not only in the movies but in society.  But what about the much more common situation in which defendants are perceived to be clearly guilty after the issue of deprivation of their rights is brought up publicly?  Do these defendants not deserve the Hollywood treatment or at least a fair trial?  Or if the defendant is not a minority being abused by a corrupt racist system but instead is accused of crimes against minorities?  Do constitutional rights go out the window when there is not chance for society or at least a movie audience to virtue signal their beliefs that racism is the worst of all evils?

But What About Unpopular or Even Guilty Defendants?

The simple answer is that “’injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as so eloquently put by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  The criminal defense attorneys who represent unpopular defendants in cases which aren’t covered by the media are cloaked in the same mantle of righteousness as those who represent innocent men wrongly imprisoned by a racist society. When justice is denied, either in the form of dishonest law enforcement cutting corners in a search, prosecutors ignoring exculpatory evidence, or judges making unfair rulings to ensure a conviction, the obvious implication is that the end justifies the means.  Such a mindset essentially causes our constitution to be discarded and laws are enforced selectively by those in power.

I have certainly had my fill of disdain directed at me for my daring to represent unpopular clients. The louder I shouted that my client was being denied his rights or unfairly convicted, the more threats arrived in my email or voicemail, the more anger directed at me from all corners of society. It doesn’t deter me as I didn’t get into this profession to become popular – despite many lawyers who are terrified to take any case which they think is a loser or will cause them any difficulty in their lives.  Case in point: I should have learned my lesson from representing “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious Mexican cartel leader who apparently deserved no rights at all, especially a fair trial, because some TV show on Netflix said he was guilty.  I shouldn’t have taken on John Gotti, Jr. as a client, because everyone in NYC was sure every Gotti was guilty and the feds would come after me.

Representing a white man who was convicted of molesting four Black brothers?  Lost in the avalanche of hatemail I received was the fact that the man had a one day trial represented by a badly incompetent public defender who: neglected to put four witnesses on the stand who were present during the supposed periods of sex assault and would have cleared the defendant, who neglected to present evidence to the jury that two of the four alleged victims had claimed to have seen the defendant assault another child – but that child denied it and was supported by a forensic hospital examination. That the judge, who initially had denied my motion for a new trial abruptly halted my examination of the public defender and vacated the conviction made no difference: the threats and hatemail continued for months after the defendant was freed from his 27 year sentence.  No production company came to see me about making a movie about this case.

Recently I began my pro bono representation of Rashaun Weaver, a 14 year old boy facing life in prison for the charge of stabbing to death a pretty Columbia University freshman. This deeply unpopular decision of mine has resulted in the typical rage-filled emails and messages. How dare I represent a child who grew up under horrific circumstances and is now sitting in a jail cell barely able to see his parents because of curtailed visitation due to the pandemic?  Forget that there has yet to be a trial in this case: Weaver in the eyes of society and the New York tabloids is guilty and doesn’t deserve any rights at all.  His age, his mental condition, his unfavorable upbringing – a young woman was murdered.  Still, no movie to be made here.

Finally, a few years back I represented an 18 year old man who was charged with manslaughter after he was attacked by three men and allegedly pulled a knife out to stab one of his attackers in the leg, severing an artery and causing the man’s death.  On the first day of the case I visited my client in jail and he tearfully told me each of his attackers was armed with a weapon: a knife, a machete and a baseball bat and that he had no choice but either to defend himself or to die.  I relayed this to the prosecutor who assured me this was all false, that the attackers had no such weapons – and gave me a security camera video to prove it.  Once we enlarged the images in the video, it was clear that, in fact, each of the weapons my client had supposedly imagined his attackers wielding were in fact used against him.  In addition, the detective who testified in the grand jury claimed that my client had no injuries apparent on his body when he was arrested the next day; we received pictures from the jail hospital of my client’s body which showed numerous cuts and bruises.  Nevertheless, it took months for the State Attorney’s office to dismiss the manslaughter charge; neither the prosecutor or detective were disciplined for their unethical if not criminal behavior.  Again, I was vilified for this representation and no movies were made about this case.  My guess is the reality that the defendant and “victim” were both Blacks may have had something to do with the lack of societal concern over the injustice that nearly put my client away for decades.

Lessons To Be Learned From Just Mercy

In conclusion, while the heavy-handed message contained in Just Mercy hit me where it was intended to, it does little for the rank and file defendants all over the country who have to fight tooth and nail for justice regardless of their guilt or innocence, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their bank balances and ability to hire the best criminal defense lawyers, regardless if a movie production company believes money can be made by exploiting their stories.  It shouldn’t be this way and it doesn’t have to be in a country as great as ours, despite all its flaws, that has the best criminal justice system in the world.

Jeffrey Lichtman has received the highest rating (AV) from the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory, is recognized in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers and has also been selected as a New York City Super Lawyer for being a leader in his field of criminal defense. Mr. Lichtman has received a rating of 10.0/10 Superb rating from Avvo Lawyer Directory and was profiled in the New York Daily News, The New York Times as part of the “Public Lives” series, New York Magazine and Ozy. He can be reached at (212) 581-1001.