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Jose Alexander Tochihuitl  

Dr.Tarnoff  

ENGL CTW  

8 October 2018  

Humanizing the Worst 

In Bryan Stevenson’s book J​ust Mercy​ he uses pathos and structure within his writing in 

order to enhance his argument. Through the use of these devices, Stevenson illustrates how 

broken the criminal justice system is. Stevenson argues that not only is the criminal justice 

system broken, but also we as a whole society are fundamentally broken. This idea is introduced 

when Stevenson writes ​“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have 

been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent..​.B
​ ut 

our shared brokenness connected us”​(289).​ ​Every single individual has a story to tell when they 

​ tevenson uses his clients backstories effectively by appealing to 


recount where they came from.​ S

the readers emotions and have them empathize with these broken individuals. Stevenson wants 

the audience to know that if we simply shift our attention from the “what” they did to the “why” 

perhaps these sentences would unfold differently. In other words, if we took the time to better 

understand our broken selves and others, society would not be in this constant cycle of being 

known for our mistakes but would work towards rehabilitation rather than punishment.  

Throughout the book, Stevenson describes case after case in where individuals are 

unjustly convicted ​and sentenced to death​ because the justice system, as well as the officials 

within it, fail to do their part of upholding justice. Stevenson is effective in showing the reader a 

comprehensive backstory of each of his clients in order to better understand their circumstances. 
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Stevenson’s use of pathos is present numerous times but perhaps is best exemplified in the tragic 

story of Charlie, who was prosecuted as an adult despite only being fourteen years old. 

Stevenson goes against the status quo of the image of a prisoner by starting the chapter “Surely 

Doomed”​ ​with Charlies grandmother’s quote “He’s just a little boy”(115). When one thinks of a 

criminal, for the most part, they think of a grown adult who is malicious; the worst of what 

humanity has to offer. By starting the chapter with this simple yet powerful statement, pathos is 

introduced to the audience by having them make an immediate emotional connection. 

Stevensons use of guiltless diction forces the audience to understand how unlawful the situation 

is. This catches the reader’s attention by implanting the idea that young boys or girls are 

associated with the concept of innocence and that whatever harm they do is unintentional and not 

with malicious intentions.  

Stevenson summarizes Charlies tragic story by illustrating how Charlie grew up in a 

violent household in where his stepfather, George, would beat his mother. One night things took 

a turn for the worst when George punched his mother unconscious. Charlie only being a child 

had a rush of emotions going through his head and was worried that his loving mother was about 

to bleed to death in front of him. In his helplessness, Charlie had hatred towards George and took 

his gun and shot him dead (Stevenson 120). The descriptive and emotionally intense story makes 

the audience become truly invested. In order for pathos to be effective, the story telling aspect of 

Charlie’s background has to get across to the reader as vivid and as real as possible. Stevenson 

does this by focusing on the small details such as the description of how “within seconds the 

blood slowly began to trickle down his nose… the Auburn University T-Shirt someone had given 

him”, and how “Charlie replaced the paper towels with the cloth towel”(119). The purpose of 
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these small but crucial details is to let us into Charlies head and see who Charlie, the human, was 

going through in such a traumatizing experience. This exemplifies how the pathos, not only in 

this story, but also in every single backstory of each “criminal”, is a look into a reality that is 

more complicated than the justice system makes it out to be. At its essence, the true purpose of 

Stevenson’s book is to humanize these “criminals” who have been stripped away from their 

humanity.  

As it is later shown, the judge was resentful towards Charlie after it was revealed to the 

reader that George was a police officer. It is for this reason that Charlie is sentenced to life 

imprisonment. The judge’s lack of empathy and understanding paired with the preconceived 

perception of who George was lead him to disregard the fact that Charlie was raised in a violent 

household. On top of that the judge also disregards that, as a child faced with tremendous fear, 

Charlie committed a mistake. It is during these moments, that Stevenson steps in at the eleventh 

hour and tries to show the world that these so-called criminals have a complex past that is worth 

looking into in order to see the greater picture. This does not justify their wrong doing, however 

it does help one better understand why his clients possibly committed the crime. Stevenson 

seems to value the “why” more than the “what” his clients did. Unfortunately, that is not the case 

with the courts which base their entire judgement on the impression that the person who on trial 

is guilty until proven innocent. On top of that, Stevenson argues that his client’s need to be 

assessed as a whole person, rather than a single mistake.  

Just how he does with Charlie through the use of pathos, Stevenson humanizes Trina 

through the intentional structure of his text and what he decides to put in the forefront. Similar to 

Stevenson’s use of pathos in the sixth chapter, the same structure can be seen in each chapter. 
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The eighth chapter starts with the poem ​Uncried Tears b​ y Ian E. Manuel, then transitions to 

Trina Garnett. Trina is another of Stevenson clients, he does not mention that she is being 

prosecuted for a crime, even though, by now, the reader has picked up on the pattern. 

Stevenson’s writing starts with “Trina Garnett was the youngest of twelve children living in the 

poorest section of Chester, Pennsylvania” (148). Immediately the reader is once again invested 

because of Stevenson’s deliberate use of diction to show Trina's young age and socio-economic 

status while layering pathos within his structure. The hardships that Trina grew up with such as 

multiple rapes, losing her family members as early as nine years old, losing her child, and having 

an intellectual disability are all described by Stevenson. The author does all this before even 

getting to the crime she committed, when at fourteen years old, she accidently killed two boys by 

setting the house on fire . In doing so, Stevenson is showing all the trauma Trina has endured and 

gives a vivid image of how her life has had countless hardships. By introducing Trina’s 

backstory first it gives one an inside look to her life which is crucial in understanding her as a 

person. We do not judge for the mistake she made but rather assess her troublesome life and 

determine that she is not a threat to society because we have seen a more complete picture. This 

brings up the question of, why do we? In order to humanize these discarded individuals we need 

to first understand the possible why. Essentially all it takes is time to slow down to see where 

others come from and question “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”(289 ).   

This is a problem that, at first glance, seems unsolvable, there is no way to make the 

world right. Stevenson himself has felt this overwhelming task overcome him when he writes “In 

a two- week period, I had been in California visiting Antonio Nunez...Trina Garnett in 

Pennsylvania and Ian Manuel in Florida… I was having an increasingly difficult time managing 
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it all” (283). When Stevenson is on the phone with Jimmy Dill, who is only one hour away from 

execution, Stevenson works towards mitigation and for the most part Stevenson is that mitigator 

for his clients. However, Stevenson finally gets to his tipping point and breaks down crying. No 

matter how much he wanted to lessen the severity of the situation it eventually caught up to him. 

There will always be those who are born into non-ideal circumstances and the world is full of 

injustices, but when it comes to justice in the courts, that is something we have more control 

over. It is here that Stevenson wants us to focus our attention and resources because if the courts 

were more empathetic and took the time to carefully evaluate these individuals, they too would 

see the cruelty of a world many “criminals” grow up in.  

 
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Works Cited  

Stevenson, Bryan. ​JUST MERCY.​ Spiegel & Grau, 2015., 2014.