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Never Throw Away the Key

Just Mercy challenges us not just to abolish the cruel, oppressive, and racist system of death sentencing, but to move beyond soul-killing modes of thought that are part of what make such systems of oppression possible in the first place.

Our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.”
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”*
-Terence, African Roman playwright & former slave
(*favorite ‘maxim’ of Karl Marx)


Far too many people in the United States are officially condemned to have their futures cut short. The most extreme of these cases are found on Death Row, where thousands now sit, sentenced to be executed by the state—some likely for crimes they did not even commit. To these we must add another 55,000 people who languish permanently in US prisons, sentenced to “life” without even the possibility of parole. They too are condemned to die, behind bars, if not today, then eventually—no matter what they do or say, no matter how unfair the events that landed them in prison in the first place.

What does it mean for a society to condemn so many, so finally?

Bryan Stevenson’s powerful book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014) challenges us to hold the condemned in our minds. And not just for their sake, but for ours as well. Stevenson’s best-selling memoir reveals to us an American “justice” system that is quick to cast out and reluctant to redeem, where the goals of rehabilitation and genuine public safety have been long pushed aside by the drive to punish and purge. Drawing from decades of work as a defense lawyer on the frontlines challenging the death penalty and defending the condemned in Southern former slave states like Georgia and Alabama, Stevenson reveals a system driven more by vengeance than fairness, political opportunism than due process, one where scapegoating by race and class routinely violates truth and justice. As Stevenson puts it: “Our criminal justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” And he provides countless examples and statistics to prove the point. Just Mercy thus joins a growing list of best-selling books (such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) and popular films (such as Ava DuVernay’s Thirteenth) helping to shift how this country speaks about the “criminal justice” system.

But Stevenson’s work does something else, something rarer, and perhaps even more difficult and necessary for our contemporary moment: he looks unflinchingly at this society’s worst crimes and most egregious injustices, without making light of the damage that’s been done by perpetrators and punishers alike, yet also without becoming hardened to the humanity that still survives, even among those who have committed great wrong—and even among those hired to impose further brutality on the condemned.

In contrast to prominent activist approaches that make the case against mass incarceration by emphasizing the brutal lock-up of non-violent and drug-related offenders (a relatively small percentage of long-term imprisonments), Stevenson comes to grips with the widespread interpersonal violence that still accounts for most extended prison cases. Yet against the growing social punitiveness, especially prominent on the (Trumpian) political right, but also found on the (“deplorable”-hating) left, Just Mercy refuses to permanently condemn or write off even those with blood on their hands.

Further, while Stevenson’s narrative focuses on the most tragic cases, including the innocent and wrongly convicted, his account brings out the ways in which the prevailing system of extreme punishment harms us all, even those who depend on that system for their living. By listening with compassion in what might seem the unlikeliest of places, Stevenson finds cracks of hope and seeds for radical transformation.

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The State (and “Community”) vs. Walter McMillian

The book Just Mercy (and even more so the 2019 film) centers on Stevenson’s efforts to save Walter McMillian, a black man who has been wrongly convicted, and spends decades in prison—on Death Row—for a crime he did not commit. McMillian has what you would think is an air-tight alibi: he and his wife Minnie were hosting a community cookout the day of the killing in question, and thus had been present with literally dozens of people during the very hours he was alleged to have been miles away, committing a murder for which there was no clear motive, and no physical evidence at the scene. The only evidence in the state’s case turns out to be the witness testimony of a convicted felon, Ralph Myers, whose story is riddled with inconsistencies, even before Stevenson discovers that prosecutors coerced and bribed it out of him. All of this, and yet McMillian is still convicted, and condemned to death.

Walter’s real ‘crime,’ it turns out, was being a working-class black man who got pegged as a ‘troublemaker’ years ago for carrying on an extra-marital affair with a local white woman. Tarred by racial and sexual taboos after the affair is revealed, it isn’t long before he is targeted for something like a legal lynching, becoming scapegoat for a long-unsolved crime.

Stevenson’s close examination of the McMillian case reveals police, prosecutors, and judges who were not just fallible, but “willing to ignore evidence, logic, and common sense to convict someone and reassure the community that the crime had been solved and the murderer punished” (112, emphasis added). As Stevenson makes clear, it is often this desire to “reassure the community” that drives these officials to do their dirtiest work: deliberately ignoring or suppressing evidence that could exonerate the condemned, deflecting serious concerns of guilt and innocence with trivializing procedural maneuvers.

The drive to convict and punish here is not just something that rains down from the state on high, but that draws force and ‘justification’ from the alleged need of the local population—the so-called ‘community’—to feel safe and secure in the wake of violence, especially but not exclusively violence against women. It follows from this that the project of reducing—let alone ‘abolishing’—such reckless state persecution requires not only challenging the policies and practices themselves (or the police that enforce them), but more broadly changing the hearts and minds of the ‘community’ writ large—addressing the (often racialized and gendered) fears and anxieties that fuel (or give cover) to the lockup.

McMillian’s story makes for a legal thriller surpassing John Grisham—I will not recount here its riveting plot. But, crucially, Just Mercy is not just a book about the wronged ‘innocent’; Stevenson dwells intimately with the ‘guilty’ as well, people who have in fact committed heinous acts, albeit often under great duress, and in conditions far from their choosing. Again and again, Stevenson shows us how these people, too, have humanity: the capacity and desire to learn from their mistakes, to express regret and feel compassion for others, to want to make meaning of their lives, and to project into a future—even if the state plans to cut theirs short.

Humanizing Herb Richardson—via screen and text

The 2019 film adaptation of Just Mercy powerfully dramatizes the humanity behind bars on Death Row. Perhaps the most moving scene comes when Herbert Richardson, Stevenson’s first client, is sent to the death chamber, his final Supreme Court appeal denied. Overcome by fear and anxiety, Richardson’s legs shake as he walks to the electric chair, head and eyebrows shaved to the skin, to “facilitate a ‘clean’ execution,” (90): that is, to prevent his killers from having to smell the scorch of his burning hair. The guards strap and buckle Herb in and wire him up, and a pulled curtain reveals through thick glass a room full of well-dressed, seated observers, gathered to witness his execution—politely prepared to watch him die. The official death sentence is read aloud. Panic and desperation flood Richardson’s eyes.

Then something happens. Through the vents above the electric chair, before the executioner throws the switch, we hear a sound: a cacophonic clankety clank—rattling metal and, then, raised voices. Clankety clank, clankety clank. Herb hears it, too, and looks up: it is his fellow Death Row brothers, running their tin cups against their cell bars, calling out his name at the top of their lungs up and down the hallway. Clankety clank clankety clank clankety clank BANG BANG BANG clankety clank. They yell for him to know that he is not alone:

“We’re with you, Herb!”
“We’ll never forget you, Herb!”

Such clinking protest does not stop the execution. Herb Richardson is still forced out of this world.

But before the electricity burns through his body, Herb is able to compose himself and cease his quivering. Buffeted by the clanking chorus, he can take one last breath, and leave the earth with at least a shred of dignity, knowing that he is not alone, and that there are others who know that what is happening to him is wrong. That he will be remembered, and not only as a murderer.

Let us be clear: Herbert Richardson is guilty of killing someone. He has long admitted what he has done—placing a bomb under a porch that ultimately killed an 11-year-old girl named Rena Mae Collins. But though he has killed, Herb insists that he never meant to; the bomb had been meant to scare someone else, not to harm anyone, let alone kill this child. Herb pummels himself with regret, asking himself over and over “How could I be so stupid!” In his more depressive moments, Herb even proclaims that he deserves his fate, which only makes that fate more absurd and unnecessary; clearly Herb has more than learned his lesson.

Some would denounce people like Richardson as “monsters.” But Stevenson’s intimate account confronts us with the undeniable fact that even when people like Herb have perpetrated terrible violence, seldom did the violence start with them. They are not the sole authors of their actions. More often than not, those condemned have themselves been victims of parental neglect, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, dire poverty, or even—as in the case of Herbert Richardson—all of the above, plus PTSD stemming from military service in Vietnam.

In Stevenson’s written memoir there is no mention of this death hour cage-clanking comradeship—likely it’s a Hollywood embellishment. In the text of Just Mercy, Herbert in his final hours is too isolated to reach, separated from his Row-mates, torn away brutally from his family in the visitation room so that the electrocution can proceed right on schedule. Still, Herb’s death-house humanity comes through, if in more subtle ways. During his final family visiting hours he tells jokes to keep things light, concerned to protect the feelings of those around him. Condemned to die, he worries about the future: reminding the correctional officers to be sure that his wife gets the folded American flag she will soon be entitled to as the widow of a military veteran. Somehow, in a way that even Stevenson admits he can’t fully grasp, Herb is even able to convince the guards to play his chosen hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” as he walks to the death chamber.

Stevenson recounts and reflects on a profound comment Herb makes just moments before he must face the electric chair:

“It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.” He looked at me, and his face twisted in confusion.

I gave Herbert one last long hug, but I was thinking about what he’d said. I thought of all the evidence that the court had never reviewed about his childhood. I was thinking about all of the trauma and difficulty that had followed him home from Vietnam. I couldn’t help but ask myself, Where were all of these helpful people when he really needed them? Where were all of these helpful people when Herbert was three and his mother died? Where were they when he was seven and trying to recover from physical abuse? Where were they when he was a young teen struggling with drugs and alcohol? Where were they when he returned from Vietnam traumatized and disabled? (89-90).

Where, indeed.

Stevenson reminds us of the collective responsibility that society bears for the wounding and neglect that almost always seems to form the backstory for the spectacular violence that grabs headlines and steals lives—both those of the victims and those of the victimizers. When we look closely, there is often a deeper social causality at work in even the most barbaric of individual acts. And in confronting this social and historical reality, there emerge new possibilities for human sympathy and understanding.

Confronting our Shared Brokenness

Stevenson spends much of his time in Just Mercy with people like Herb Richardson. They are among the most vulnerable and broken people in this system, and in our society—the mentally ill, the addiction-driven, children just entering adolescence yet condemned to forever sentences for crimes committed under incredible duress. Most are past victims of abuse and trauma.

Such cases might seem exceptional.

But Stevenson’s ultimate point is to underscore the vulnerability and brokenness of all of us, and to urge us to embrace rather than deny this vulnerability as a defining feature of our human—and our historical—condition. (How could one live in the contemporary U.S.A. without being in some sense damaged as a result?) It is Stevenson’s belief that denying this baseline brokenness causes a counterproductive and cruel social hardening. “We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts,” he writes, “and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’—identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvement they might make in their lives.” But, he adds, crucially, “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Conversely, Stevenson insists, none of us has lived without both experiencing harm and causing harm to others in some way. Accepting this fallibility and vulnerability, Stevenson hypothesizes, might hold hope for change, enabling us to see the need to both receive and extend to others not just their just desserts—tit for tat, eye for eye—but also the gift of mercy: a generosity of spirit that flows from compassion and humility. Thus, his title: not just justice, but just mercy. “If we acknowledged our brokenness,” he writes, “we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable” (291).

It makes sense. Were we to admit our own brokenness, as well as our collective responsibility for the social neglect that conditions the criminal faltering of others, we could no longer accept that those locked away are fundamentally so utterly different than ourselves, or that they are solely to blame for their predicament. Nor could we continue to accept the fantasy that simply expelling ‘them’ from the circle of society thereby returns ‘our’ community to health or wholeness.

“We are all broken by something,” Stevenson writes. “We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”

Recognizing this reality, in Stevenson’s view, can become the key to our potential transformation. For, as he writes, “our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion” (289).

“What would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness?” Stevenson asks, “if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us,” even those “who have killed others” (290-1).

Stevenson gives us a sense of the transformative possibilities of compassionate listening. Even prison guards, as he recounts, are capable of change—at least when they are forced to confront the mitigating circumstances of their prisoners’ lives. Consider the memorable case of one ultra-macho correctional officer, his muscled forearm inscribed with a confederate flag tattoo. (He is never named in the text.) Forced to overhear heart-wrenching court testimony about a death row prisoner on his watch, including the prisoner’s long history of childhood abuse at the hands of a string of foster parents, the guard comes to feel a personal connection to a man he previously despised. “Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me,” he tells the prisoner, “I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you was saying…made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse” (201).

This guard doesn’t know the word mitigation when he hears Stevenson using it in court. But he cares enough to look it up. Mind you, this is the very same man who earlier brutally (and illegally) strip-searched Stevenson during his first visit to the prison. Yet even this hardened guard of the system—his pickup truck sporting racist bumper stickers and a gun rack—softens and begins extending at least a bit of compassion to the man he is imprisoning, once he hears his backstory. (In turn, we as readers learn alongside Stevenson to extend compassion to the guard as well, realizing that the ‘fuck-you’ toughness he projects is in part the product of his own childhood trauma and abuse.) After this turnabout, the officer confesses that, while on transport duty, he did something he “probably wasn’t supposed to.” He pulled off the interstate and took his prisoner, Avery Jenkins, to Wendy’s for a chocolate milkshake.

Not long afterward, Stevenson informs us, the guard quits the prison.

Such an individual change of heart is a welcome sign. But is it enough to transform the system? Can such compassion spread and scale?

Here again the film Just Mercy dramatizes the point. Back at the prison after his appeal for a new trial has been summarily dismissed (even after the only witness against him recants his testimony), Walter McMillian refuses to return to his cell. A guard at each shoulders, he grips the bars and holds his ground: he will not go. The ensuing struggle thrusts the guards themselves into a moral crisis, dramatizing the way that the system is also forcing them to suppress their better and truer selves. They, too, have just heard with their own ears at court the overwhelming evidence of Walter’s innocence—for the very first time. How, then, can they bring themselves to force this innocent man back into a cell, using force to overcome his resistance—resistance that they now know is morally just? Nonetheless, the guards “do their jobs”—first pleading, then forcing Walter back into a cage. For his righteous resistance, Walter lands in the Hole: extended solitary confinement. Even an innocent man in a U.S. prison, if he contests his subjection, will be punished as a criminal delinquent, even when the guards themselves know better.

Individual changes of heart alone are not enough. But neither are they unimportant. What, then, is to be done?

The Need for Mitigation, Possibilities for Transformation

“We all need mitigation at some point,” Stevenson writes. And by “we” he means not just those locked in prison, but those who have forced them into those cages and death chambers, as well as those who condone such actions from afar. Of the people who cheer the death of one of his wrongfully condemned clients, Stevenson writes: “I realized they were broken people, too, even if they would never admit it” (290). Speaking of society at large, he adds, “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken…We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible” (290).

But though his outrage is clear, Stevenson sustains the belief that such punishing submission is not the end of the story. Both the perpetrators of terrible offenses, and the enforcers of brutal or unjust punishment are capable of transformation.

Stevenson’s story, too, after all, is a story of transforming. He was not raised a radical. Nor did he graduate from college as a prison or death penalty abolitionist. It was only by dwelling with the condemned and listening carefully that Stevenson came to see his own personal relation to this existential dilemma. “Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments,” he writes, “didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness.” Just Mercy is thus, among other things, the coming-of-age story of a well-educated do-gooder who is radicalized by his up-close experiences with the hidden humanity inside the system. Starting out from Harvard Law with the liberal goal of fixing the occasional prosecutorial error, Stevenson comes over a process of years to develop a basic indictment of that system itself.

Sustained proximity to those on the inside was a key step in Stevenson’s own transformation; his was was not just an intellectual breakthrough. Nonetheless, his experiences give rise to a social moral philosophy of great contemporary importance, with which we will conclude this essay.

The Roots of Stevenson’s Compassionate Radicalism

Let us distinguish Stevenson’s radical case against death sentencing from a range of more common arguments against state-sanctioned murder. Stevenson does not merely reject the death penalty because its finality makes the execution of innocent people a virtual inevitability. Nor does he reject the death penalty just because it is economically ‘costly’ or because it is ‘cruel and unusual’ in the sense of amounting to physical torture. Nor is he driven to his stance only because, in an unequal society like ours, state-sanctioned murder becomes a kind of engine for perpetuating historic racist and class injustice and resentment. Surely, Stevenson would agree with most of these reasons, too. But there is more.

At root, Stevenson’s radical death penalty abolitionism draws upon two crucial axioms that apply to all human beings:

1) We are all vulnerable (in some sense “broken”) creatures, created by and forced to survive amidst social conditions that, as individuals, we neither chose nor created.

2) We are all unfinished projects, works-in-progress capable of change and possible transformation, given the right conditions, and the necessary human support.

From these two deep basic conditions, building with Stevenson, we might derive two fundamental human rights:

The right to mitigation: that is, to have life circumstances and past history factored into all judgments about oneself in the present;


The right to transformation: that is, to be provided a space and time and context to improve, to grow, and to change.

A right to have both one’s past and one’s potential count.

A right to a history. And a right to a future.

From this perspective, life without parole (‘the other death penalty’)—as well as many other inflexible and excessive sentencing practices common in the U.S.—should outrage us as much as literal executions. For such final or inflexible condemnation seeks to deny the most human of capacities: the capacity to learn, to change, to become better, the possibility of human growth and redemption. Further, such death sentencing invariably depends on a systematic suppression of the mitigating circumstances that have led to crime itself in the first place.

Similarly, we should emphasize, the right to transformation and to mitigation are not merely important as a grounding for abolitionist arguments against the entire incarceration system, but also as levers for expanding possibilities and extending compassion to those who are currently locked in U.S. prisons, even if we cannot yet burst the cages. The right of transformation, for example, would demand that we fight for extending educational, health, and cultural resources and opportunities for meaningful work, therapy, reflection, dialogue, and medical care to those on the inside right now. The right to mitigation, on the other hand, might lead us to pursue changes in how prosecutors and correctional officers are trained to handle those in their purview, making sure that the system’s agents are not merely hardened with horror stories of prisoners’ worst alleged actions, but given a more holistic view of the lives that have led people to the present. These ideas only scratch the surface of what it would mean to take these two fundamental rights seriously across the present system. Readers can no doubt imagine many more.


As should be clear, the implications of what I’m calling Stevenson’s compassionate radicalism extend well beyond the question of crime and punishment. Read as a work of philosophy, Just Mercy compels us to reflect upon how simplistic, ‘black and white’ condemnatory thinking works to normalize institutionalized violence and inequality in many other realms as well. From state aggression and extrajudicial drone strikes abroad, to welfare cuts and militarized policing at home, the view that there are ‘bad’ or ‘unworthy’ people out there, people who ‘do not deserve’ the same level of compassion or due process that ‘we’ do, makes it easier to accept inequality—and to perpetrate injustice. How many contemporary institutions or public policies could stand the test of a universal right to transformation and mitigation? It seems to me that our society would have to be remade quite fundamentally were we to insist on the imperative that every human being be granted a right to have both their past conditions and their future potential respected at every point in their social experience.

Lacking such an enforceable right, in the world we now inhabit, the hierarchical sorting of people into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ invariably draws upon and contributes to the toxic legacies of nationalism, race, class, as well as gender, homophobia, ableism, and more. But, as Stevenson makes clear, it is not simply abhorrent as an expression of such injustice. It is fundamentally dehumanizing and alienating for all involved, and corrosive to the potential for positive social change in general.

To develop this closing point, let us consider how such condemnatory thinking—we might call it death sentencing—represents a deep failure to live up to Karl Marx’s reported favorite “maxim,” words taken from the African Roman playwright, and former slave, Terence:

“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”

These neglected words, in my view, should be taken up as an intellectual, ethical, and political imperative. And death sentencing violates that imperative, radically.

Intellectually, when we cast out those who offend us as ‘alien’ and ‘other,’ we prevent ourselves from understanding the causality that lies behind what offends, eroding our own capacities to handle complex, difficult realities. I am reminded here what critic Philip Slater in 1970 (prior to the prison boom) called the

Toilet Assumption—the notion that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, unwanted complexities and obstacles will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision…Our approach to social problems [in the United States] is to decrease their visibility: out of sight out of mind. This is the real foundation of racial segregation, especially in its most extreme case, the Indian ‘reservation.’ The result of our social efforts has been to remove the underlying problem of our society farther and farther from daily experience and daily consciousness, and hence to decrease, in the mass of the population, the knowledge skill, resources, and motivation necessary to deal with them.

Furthermore, on an ethical and existential level, such condemnatory disavowal is dishonest. It screens us from the recognition of our own human frailty, evading the historical, social, and biographical contingency of our lives and life choices. We thus train ourselves in delusion and arrogance, as if we too, or those close to us, could never fall from our moralistic perch, given certain material circumstances.

Finally, at the political level, when we condemn masses of our fellow human beings—disproportionately non-white, poor, and working class—to forever cells, we do not only condemn them to further suffering, but condemn ourselves to disconnection from the reality of that suffering, cutting ourselves off from all those who struggle with conditions and histories akin to those against which we’ve moralistically stopped our ears. Such an orientation, if allowed to hold sway over the progressive movement, condemns the working-class and society at large to fragmentation, alienation, mutual misunderstanding, growing polarization and deadly resentment. In a society where over 8% of the overall population and over 33% of all African American males carry the stamp of a felony conviction—where tens of millions of working-class people voted for Donald Trump and millions work in the “security” industry—it is difficult to imagine a political bloc large and strategically savvy enough to actually make radical change without shedding the condemnatory blinders that make dialogue impossible.

When we ‘flush people away’ or lock them up and ‘throw away the key,’ as ‘aliens’ in our midst, we make it all too easy to ignore the complexities and history that have given rise to that which we would expunge. We thus betray a fundamental truth: that all of humanity is made of a common substance and subject to common history—that we are all, in a sense, one, and further, that, with effort and patience, we can understand where the ‘other’ has come from. We have much to teach each another, negatively and positively, from our human failures to our proud leaps forward.

Who can know for certain what each may need from the other in the struggles and social transformations to come?

We thus must unlock the forever cages, I say—both the steel ones in our prisons and the conceptual ones in our heads—not just for the future sake of those otherwise condemned. But for the sake of our collective future.

In the contemporary United States of America, as I see it, the movement for a truly emancipated society, if it is not to succumb to an utter bloodbath, must be committed to the defense of oppressed people, the social democratic seizure and redistribution of political-economic power from ruling elites, and the defeat of outright reactionaries…but also to the compassionate, merciful project of human redemption—even, perhaps especially, for those we are tempted to condemn, finally and for all.

Stevenson’s book challenges us then, not just to abolish the cruel, oppressive, and racist system of death sentencing, but to move beyond soul-killing, life-deadening modes of thought that are part of what make such systems of oppression possible and palatable in the first place. Just Mercy thus gives us more than yet another radical critique of the justice system. It offers rebuke to those who would treat other human beings as finished or disposable, whatever the ostensive political alignment of that condemnation.

Radical compassion remains key.

And we must never throw it away.

1. I speak here for now only of those so condemned within the USA, not the many human beings routinely (and too often, invisibly) condemned to death by the American military state abroad, such as the thousands of extrajudicial killings by drone strikes, as recently revealed by the New York Times, and by the Brown University’s Watson Institute: .

2. As of Just Mercy’s publication in 2014, at least 152 people condemned to die in the United States had been fully exonerated as innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted, thanks to the work of groups like the Innocence Project and the Economic Justice Institute.

3. See the Sentencing Project, “No End In Sight: America’s Enduring Reliance on Life Imprisonment”
Feb. 17, 2021 by Ashley Nellis.

To put this 55,000 figure in context, here are the total number of people imprisoned (for sentences of any length) in the following countries as of this writing: England (86,618), France (67,700), Germany (62,194), and Canada (41,145). Over 200,000 people in the USA are sentenced to “life in prison” including those with the possibility of parole.

4. We should also add here the effective death sentence imposed on prisoners who are routinely denied needed medical care for serious and life-threatening illnesses. See for instance the urgent case of Kevin Rashid Johnson, Minister of Defense of the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panther Party here: .

Joseph G. Ramsey, PhD, is an educator, organizer, scholar and activist, located in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  Joe is a Senior Lecturer in English and American Studies at UMass Boston, where he is an elected representative Of the Faculty Staff Union (FSU/MTA), and a founding member of the anti austerity Save UMB Coalition.  A frequent contributor to radical websites like Counterpunch, his scholarly research area focuses on African American literature and the Left, with a book project in the works on the critical communism of Richard Wright.  Joe is an editorial board member at Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of marxist theory and practice, at the journal Socialism and Democracy and host and co-producer of the pandemic-era internet show Shelter & Solidarity: A Deep Dive with Artists and Activists.