"He's just a little boy."
It was late, and I had picked up the phone after hours be- cause no one else was in the building; it was becoming a bad habit. The older woman on the other end of the line was pleading with me after offering a heartfelt description of her grandson, who had just been jailed for murder.
"He's already been in the jail for two nights, and I can't get to him. I'm in Virginia, and my health is not good. Please tell me you'll do something."
I hesitated before answering her. Only a handful of countries per- mitted the death penalty for children — and the United States was one of them. Many of my Alabama clients were on death row for crimes they were accused of committing when they were sixteen- or seventeen-year-old children. Many states had changed their laws to make it easier to prosecute children as adults, and my clients were get- ting younger and younger. Alabama had more juveniles sentenced to death per capita than any other state — or any other country in the world. I was determined to manage the growing demand for our services by taking on new cases only if the client was facing execution or formally condemned to death row.
This woman had told me that her grandson was only fourteen. While the Supreme Court had upheld the death penalty for juveniles in a 1989 ruling, a year earlier the Court had barred the death penalty for children under the age of fifteen. Whatever perils this child faced, he was not going to be sent to death row. This lady's grandson might be facing life imprisonment without parole, but given the overwhelming number of death penalty cases on our docket, I couldn't rationalize taking on his case.
As I considered how to answer this woman's plea, she started speak- ing quickly, at a whisper: "Lord, please help us. Lead this man and protect us from any choice that is not yours. Help me find the words, Lord. Tell me what to say, Lord—"
I didn't want to interrupt her prayer, so I waited until she finished. "Ma'am, I can't take the case, but I will drive down to the jail and see your grandson tomorrow. I'll see what I can do. We likely won't be able to represent him, but let me find out what's going on, and perhaps we can help you find a lawyer who can assist you." "Mr. Stevenson, I'm so grateful."
I was tired and already feeling overwhelmed with the cases I had. And cases with juveniles took an especially severe emotional toll on everyone who touched them. But I needed to go to a courthouse near the county where this boy was being held, so it wouldn't be that big a deal to stop by and see the child.
The next morning I drove for over an hour to the county. When I got to the courthouse, I checked the clerk's file on the case and found a lengthy incident report. Because I was an attorney investigating the case on behalf of the family, the clerk let me read the file, although she wouldn't make a copy or let me take it out of the office because it involved a minor. The clerk's office was small, but it wasn't especially busy, so I sat down on an uncomfortable metal chair in a cramped corner of the room to read the statement, which mostly confirmed everything the grandmother had told me.
Charlie was fourteen years old. He weighed less than 100 pounds and was just five feet tall. He didn't have any juvenile criminal history — no prior arrests, no misconduct in school, no delinquencies or prior court appearances. He was a good student who had earned several certificates for perfect attendance at his school. His mother described him as a "great kid" who always did what she asked. But Charlie had, by his own account, shot and killed a man named George.
George was Charlie's mother's boyfriend. She referred to their relationship as a "mistake." George would often come home drunk and begin acting violently. There were three occasions in the year and a half leading up to the night of the shooting when George beat Charlie's mother so mercilessly that she required medical treatment. She never left George or made him leave, even though she told several people that she knew she should.
On the night of the shooting, George had come home very drunk. Charlie and his mother were playing cards when he arrived. He en- tered the house shouting, "Hey, where are you?" Charlie's mother fol- lowed his voice to the kitchen, where she let him know that she and Charlie were home playing cards. The two adults had argued earlier in the evening because she had begged him not to go out, fearing that he would come home drunk. Now she looked at him angrily when she saw him standing there, reeking of alcohol. He looked back at her, mirroring her contempt and disgust, and in a flash, he punched her hard in the face. She didn't expect him to hit her so quickly or violently — he hadn't done it like that before. She collapsed to the floor with the crush of his blow.
Charlie was standing behind his mother and saw her head slam against their metal kitchen counter as she fell. George saw Charlie standing there and glared at him coldly before brushing past him toward the bedroom, where Charlie heard him fall noisily onto the bed. Charlie's mother was lying on the floor, unconscious and bleeding badly. He knelt by his mother's side and tried to stop the bleeding.
There was some blood on her face, but it poured from an ugly cut on the back of her head. Charlie tried feverishly to revive her. He started crying, futilely asking his mother what to do. He got up and put paper towels behind her head but couldn't stop the bleeding. He frantically searched for the cloth kitchen towel because he thought that would work better and found it wrapped around a pot on the stove. His mother had cooked black-eyed peas for dinner; he loved black-eyed peas. They'd eaten together before they'd started playing pinochle, his favorite card game.
Charlie replaced the paper towels with the cloth towel and pan- icked all over again when he saw how much blood there was. He was quietly begging his mother to wake up when it appeared to him that she wasn't breathing. He thought he should call an ambulance, but the phone was in the bedroom with George. George had never hit Char- lie, but he terrified him just the same. As a younger child, whenever Charlie got very scared or anxious, he would sometimes start trem- bling and shaking. The shaking would almost always be followed by a nosebleed.
Sitting on the kitchen floor with his mother's blood all around him, Charlie could feel himself starting to tremble, and within seconds the blood slowly began to trickle out of his nose. His mother would al- ways run to get something to help with his nosebleeds, but now she just lay on the floor. He wiped the blood from his nose and focused on the fact that he had to do something. His trembling stopped. His mother hadn't moved in nearly fifteen minutes. The house was quiet. The only sound he heard was George breathing heavily in the other room; soon he could hear him snoring.
Charlie had been slowly stroking his mother's hair, desperately hoping that she would open her eyes. The blood from her head had saturated the towel and was spreading onto Charlie's pants. Charlie thought his mother might be dying or was maybe even already dead. He had to call an ambulance. He stood up, flooded with anxiety, and cautiously made his way to the bedroom. Charlie saw George on the bed asleep and felt a surge of hatred for this man. He had never liked him, never understood why his mother had let him live with them. George didn't like Charlie, either; he was rarely friendly to the boy. Even when he wasn't drunk, George seemed angry all the time. His mother had told Charlie that George could be sweet, but Charlie never saw any of that. Charlie knew that George's first wife and child had been killed in a car accident and that was why Charlie's mom said he drank so much. In the eighteen months that George lived with them, it seemed to Charlie that there had been nothing but violence, loud arguments, pushing and shoving, threats, and turmoil. His mother had stopped smiling the way she used to; she'd become nervous and jumpy, and now, he thought, she's on the kitchen floor, dead.
Charlie walked to the dresser against the back wall of the bedroom to reach the phone. He had called 911 a year earlier, after George had hit his mom, but she had directed him to do so and told him what to say. When he reached the phone, he wasn't sure why he didn't just pick up the receiver. He could never really explain why he opened the dresser drawer instead, put his hand under the folded white T-shirts his mom had laundered, and felt for the handgun he knew George kept hidden there. He'd found it there when George had said Charlie could wear an Auburn University T-shirt someone had given him. It was way too small for George and way too big for Charlie, but he'd been grateful to have it; it had been one of George's few kind gestures. This time he didn't pull his hand back in fear as he had before. He picked up the gun. He'd never fired a gun before, but he knew he could do it.
George was now snoring rhythmically.
Charlie walked over to the bed, his arms stretched out, pointing the gun at George's head. As Charlie hovered over him, the snoring stopped. The room grew very, very quiet. And that's when Charlie pulled the trigger.
From Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Copyright 2014 by Bryan Stevenson. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.