There are many engaging stories in Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.”
Stevens is an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama. You may have read the book or heard him speak at the Southern Miss Forum two years ago.
This story I am recounting is particularly relevant today, the case of Avery Jenkins, serving time for murder. In the book, Stevenson reported that prison records indicated that Jenkins “often experienced psychotic episodes in which he would scream for hours,” but his trial records made no mention of mental impairment.
Stevenson’s research revealed that Jenkins had been in 19 different foster homes by the time he was 8, and that, “He began showing signs of intellectual disability at an early age. He had cognitive impairments that suggested some organic brain damage and behavioral problems that suggested schizophrenia and other serious mental illness.” When they met the first time at the prison where Jenkins was serving his time, Avery’s first words were, “Did you bring me a chocolate milkshake?”
But the focus of this story is an unnamed guard at the prison, the guard who, Stevenson later found out, owned the pickup truck in the parking lot that proudly displayed Confederate flag decals and a bumper sticker that read: “If I’d know it was going to be like this, I’d have picked my own damn cotton.” That’s what greeted him in the prison parking lot on his first visit with Avery.
That and the strip search, demanded by the guard who owned the truck: “You’re going to go into that bathroom and take everything off if you expect to get into my prison,” the guard demanded. After an “unnecessarily aggressive search,” and signing in, which attorneys were not required to do, Stevenson was finally taken to the visitation room, and that’s when he was confronted by Jenkins’s chocolate milkshake question.
Months later, when Stevenson went to court to present the new evidence he had unearthed about the case – that Jenkins suffered from “profound mental illness” – guess who was assigned to drive Jenkins the three-hour trip from prison to court: the difficult guard with the menacing stickers on his pickup!
About a month after the hearing, Stevenson went to see Jenkins again. Pulling into the prison parking lot, it was like Groundhog Day: there was the same pickup with the same bumper stickers and the same guard was at the door, so Stevenson was prepared for the same hard time the guard had given him before.
But this time, it was, “Hello, Mr. Stevenson. How are you?” Stunned, Stevenson was about to step into the bathroom for the usual strip search, when the guard interrupted, “Oh, Mr. Stevenson, you don’t have to worry about that. I know you’re okay.”
Escorting him back to the visitation room, the guard stopped him before they entered. Seems like he’d sat in the back of the courtroom those three days and listened, hard.
Turns out, he had been in foster care too, like Jenkins, and he’d come out of it thinking no one had had it as bad as he did. “Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse.”
Visibly struggling, he pushed on.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s good what you’re doing. I got so angry coming up that there were plenty of times when I really wanted to hurt somebody, just because I was angry … sitting in that courtroom brought back memories, and I think I realized how I’m still kind of angry.”
And it wasn’t all talk on the guard’s part either. Driving Avery back to prison after the hearing, he had pulled off the interstate, found a Wendy’s and bought Avery that chocolate milkshake he’d been wanting for so long.
So, what happened to that guard? What came over him? Once again, I am drawn to the poet Yehuda Amichai, who suggests that, in the hard-packed soil of our settled opinions, no seed can sprout – no seed that could grow and perhaps unsettle those settled opinions.
But a seed did sprout within that guard, and clearly it was unsettling to him.
But how did it happen?
Amichai says it is doubts and love that work on that hard-packed soil of our fixed beliefs, working like a plow or a mole. The guard began to doubt the stickers on his truck, and he began to see Avery Jenkins as a brother, one he could treat to a chocolate milkshake. His heart was softened and at the same time strengthened.
So, what happens to us, our communities, our nation?
There’s plenty of hard-packed soil all around us that needs some healthy doubts and robust love.
Dick Conville is a retired college professor and longtime resident of the Hub City.