Dozens of witnesses, including a police officer, saw Walter McMillian at a church fish fry when a young woman was killed in nearby Monroeville, Alabama in 1986.

Police later arrested the self-employed African-American tree trimmer anyway. A nearly all-white jury convicted him and a judge sent him to death row. That’s where Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer, met McMillian.

Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, battled a hostile criminal justice system to uncover improperly concealed evidence that led to McMillian’s exoneration in 1993.

But the frightening way McMillian was so quickly condemned raises broader questions about America’s criminal justice system, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The population of U.S. jails and prisons has climbed from about 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million today. Racial minorities and the poor are disproportionately represented among the mass incarcerated.

Stevenson examines many of those troubling issues in his 2014 New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

The book, required reading for first-year WSU students and incorporated into various course curricula as this year’s common reading program selection, has sparked numerous discussions among students, faculty, and staff about the troubling incongruities.

“I think this book has had a real impact on students,” says WSU history instructor Ken Faunce, who uses Just Mercy in his Roots of Contemporary Issues course. “We discuss a chapter every Friday.”

The story of McMillian’s eventual exoneration stretches through the book as Stevenson also introduces readers to other convicts, mostly African-American men on death row in the Deep South. And not all of those cases are about just guilt or innocence. Stevenson uses them to illustrate how the criminal justice often fails the poor, contributing to lopsided punishments and unequal treatment.

In one, the Supreme Court’s ban on executing the intellectually challenged was ignored because the public defender failed to introduce evidence of the mental disability at trial. In others, judges overruled jury determinations that the death penalty was unwarranted.

Some of the most spirited classroom discussions have been about those cases other than McMillian’s, Faunce notes. Students generally agreed that prison terms of some sort were appropriate, he explains, but many questioned whether the circumstances of the cases supported execution.

“One of the things you’d hear is, ‘If this person was wealthy and had a good lawyer (at the initial trial), this would have been handled differently,’” Faunce says.

That dichotomy, in fact, has been one of the more troubling realizations for students.

“What they’ve also really been struck by is the reluctance of the criminal justice system to make things right,” Faunce says. “Even when they’re presented, like in Walter McMillian’s case, with overwhelming evidence.”

Just Mercy book cover
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau: 2014