I Feel Like a Bird

anna shamshurina
11 min readJan 4, 2022


Hello! So, I looked up the date of my latest Individual Reading post and it wasn’t good. I barely gave updates at all which was quite irresponsible on my part. However, one thing about me is that I’ll be late but I’ll catch up eventually: this is me catching up. I’m actually super excited about this post since I finished reading Just Mercy a while ago and I have tons to say (duh, I never posted. I did keep my notes with me all the time though).

But first, I’d like to add some words to my previous post (Thank You, 2021) as they directly correlate to this post. The two parts of 2021 felt like they were two different years. During the first half I felt very strange and it was hard to focus on important matters. I was late to classes, missed deadlines and other work, basically I needed to get myself together. It might have been due to the failed lexicology exam which made me seriously doubt I’d graduate (that’s a little dramatic after one unsuccessful exam, I know), especially since my whole life I’d been hinted at my poor mental ability. Despite all of that, I wasn’t about to live and let live. Third Year was also the time I decided to put more effort into my blog posts because it seemed to me that they were simply unorganized and sleazy. It’s incredibly embarrassing to look at my Freshmen Year posts — they were so random and odd, I didn’t even use capital letters or anything, who was I trying to impress? This shame that I feel is how I know that I’ve changed and it’s good because that’s literally the point of our blogs. So, I did work more on them! I started to enjoy writing them, too. But there was always a downside I never wanted to admit: how much time it took. I mean, what did I expect? Basically, I just hate spending a lot of time on things, I plainly don’t have the perseverance (something that needs to change!). And though, as I’ve said, writing is a thing I enjoy doing, sadly it’s not always my priority and I feel like it’s okay because I come back to it anyway, just a little later. I often think that “well, what am I even going to say, I have no opinion on this topic.” But once I start making a plan, I surprisingly discover how much I have to say, the ideas might seem a little bizarre at first, but that’s what correcting is for.

Now, for the second part of 2021. As I was writing in my journal today reflecting on every month from September to December (in English, just so you know), I realized HOW much had happened. But the relevant to this entry point is that after my Junior Year I promised myself that I’d look at my studies not as an obligation but as a learning opportunity (from one point of view, this “revelation” is kind of late to the party, but from another, I’m still young and my studies and learning won’t end after I graduate this particular college). I have to admit that I haven’t been very good at keeping up with the promise, but again, I’ll be trying until I get it right and even after that. So, this post is another attempt of that since I’ll be writing it not only because I need to write it but also because I genuinely want to share some information that I’ve learned while reading this book with people who might read this post, and well, because I like writing.

Finally, for the book. In my Memrise post I called Just Mercy fiction. A terrible mistake on my part but I think it’s because my mind flatly denies the fact that this is real life, that’s how things have actually happened and injustices like that continue to happen every single day in every single country of the world. Very naïve of me to think it’d be better than this, but people are not perfect, that’s why we are who we are. However, I’m happy there are individuals like Bryan Stevenson that one day just say ‘Enough!’ and take up this chancy business of fighting for a better life alongside people who are also fed up with the system. Hopefully, one day I can also become someone like that, a servant of justice. No matter what I’ll always be choosing people, the general unprotected public and be on their side even when it seems like there’s no hope or mercy, because who would protect us besides ourselves? While reading the book almost every single day I would cry about the cases and fume with anger at the same time as every instance of injustice gave me fits. I tried to keep my cool but after EJI winning a case, especially when it was about children, I’d cry tears of joy, I felt so proud that despite all the obstacles the lawyers and the prisoners were brave enough to keep fighting for what was right.

Okay, it’s time to update you on what’s going on in the book. Before I do, I have to quickly mention that the book isn’t actually very big and I could’ve easily read it in a month or less, but due to the number of books I’m reading, the school practice, and basically just the fact that our semester is not that short, I had to constantly stop myself to kind of savor what had been read and to leave it for later. In short, I was prolonging my experience of reading the book. Besides, some of the facts were so shocking for my poor soul I literally had to take a minute and let them sink in.

To the plot now! The Equal Justice Initiative under Bryan Stevenson’s now experienced hand was doing amazing. Though they had a lot more staff now, unfortunately, there were a lot more people on death row, not only in Montgomery, Alabama but nationwide. They were exhausted but tried to keep up. And here are the results of their extensive work! Today, EJI has represented and won relief for hundreds of wrongfully convicted people including 115 sentenced to death as “the American criminal justice system systematically discriminates against poor and vulnerable communities and people of color.” Not only did they work on helping condemned people, but they also were in constant touch with the Supreme Court of the United States, trying to change the system that benefits the rich and guilty by taking anything left from the poor and innocent. All eyes were on them, their work was spectacular and valuable. For example, in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence to death a person who had been a minor under 18 at the time of the crime which helped many people like Carter and Caston who were in their 50s at the time to get out of prison (by the way, there was a thunderous applause in the court room after the judge announced the verdict, it was a legendary moment to be present in). To get the matter further, they started working on challenging the sentencing of minors to life-without parole, and in Graham v. Florida (2010) the Court ruled that “mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger in non-homicide cases are unconstitutional.” Graham v. Florida became a precedent under which nearly 100 people and counting have been granted new sentences. To wrap up with EJI, I want to insert a quote from the book that has really touched me and this is exactly how I felt about the Equal Justice Initiative while reading Stevenson’s memoir (moreover, it’s the book’s closing sentences). “There were lots of people who came up to me who needed legal help for all sorts of things. I hadn’t brought business cards, so I wrote my number down for each person and encouraged them to call my office. It wasn’t likely that we could do much for many of the people who needed help, but it made the journey home less sad to hope that maybe we could.” You can call it giving false hope but any hope is still hope. Generally, Stevenson talks about this concept very often, because at times, hope is truly all we have and it’s crucial that we do since it may be the last thing to keep us going so at least let it be that. Hopeful, hope, hopefulness, hopelessness — I think are the most used words of the book. That’s all it was: they worked with their sleeves rolled up as they were driven by ardent hope, hope for a better future, for a judge to be compassionate, for the police to be less violent against people of color, for a child to be able to leave abusive and traumatic environment, for the disabled to get the help they need, for the minorities to be treated fairly by court — it was all hope for justice. “We’ve all been through a lot, Bryan, all of us. I know that some have been through more than others. But if we don’t expect more from each other, hope better for one another, recover from the hurt we experience, we are surely doomed.”

I can’t go on without talking about Walter as his case practically carries the whole plot. To put it plainly, after six anguishing years on Alabama death row Walter McMillian was finally exonerated and released. I won’t go into detail how EJI and Bryan managed to get him free, but it was a very long and truly frustrating process which involved almost every regional court in Alabama. On February 23, 1993, in Walter’s fifth appeal to the Alabama court of Criminal Appeals, the judges granted the man a new trial. Stevenson went full on and filed a motion to dismiss all charges since there was indisputable evidence (EJI had done an enormous amount of work and research). The fascinating part that made me tear up was that the prosecutor Chapman, though he did not prosecute the original case in 1987 and at first was firmly standing his ground siding with the State, “joined the defense in seeking to have the charges against McMillian dismissed.” In fact, this book provides us with a great quantity of such powerful episodes. I wish I could present every single one here, straight up copy and paste them one by one because that’s how good they are. For example, when Walter was finally being let out of prison, there was a crowd outside of the building: supporters, family, reporters all came to see the grand moment. It was a moment when justice finally won, not only to McMillan, but also to the community and the future. When he was leaving the building, the inmates screamed to the man with their sonorous voices “Stay strong, man. Stay strong!” Walter was ecstatic to hear them and realize how loved and supported he was. “As he walked to the car, Walter raised his arms and gently moved them up and down as if he meant to take flight. He looked at me and said, “I feel like a bird, I feel like a bird.”’ And in that moment, I swear, I felt like I was a bird, too.

After that and another series of struggles Walter was compensated for the wrongful prosecution and conviction that he’d experienced. However, the three men in charge of investigating the Morrison murder were never punished for their illegal actions nor was the murder ever solved. Walter, on his part, wasn’t really able to recover from the tragedy: he later developed dementia which was believed to have been brought on by the trauma of imprisonment. He died on September 11, 2013.

But before that, finally being free he reconnected with his family (though his wife had to leave him due to his cheating on her, but they stayed in touch), tried to find some work to do, and, most importantly, became an inspiration for so many people around the country that had lost all hope for justice. He and Brian gave speeches encouraging people to speak up and never give in. Moreover, they became brothers and Bryan said that Walter “was brave enough to trust his life to someone who was as young as I was then.” And, basically, the words he said during service for Walter were very touching and distressing, they made my heart ache. “He survived the humiliation of his trial and the charges against him. He survived a guilty verdict, death row, and the wrongful condemnation of an entire state. While he did not survive without injury or trauma, he came out with his dignity.”

I think now is the right moment to announce my favorite chapter of the book that contains another formidable episode that mesmerizes me: It’s Chapter Nine which is called I’m Here. It was about another of Walter’s numerous hearings where the main witness, Ralph Myers finally told the truth about what had happened on the day of the murder and how he had been pressured by the authorities to lie against Mr. McMillian. In addition to that, the defense presented irrefutable evidence that Walter wasn’t the killer: many experts and eye-witnesses confirmed that, confounding the judge with the fact that all the proof wasn’t taken into account during the original trial. Of course, the new trial was granted. What I like about this chapter is the abundance of legal terms and how accurately the court hearing is described. Furthermore, there was an old lady in the court room I want to talk about. Basically, there were so many people coming to Walter’s hearings, especially black people and his family, so the authorities, for some reason, thought it wise to use metal detectors on the entrance (I actually know the reason: they wanted more people to support the conviction, so white people and the victim’s parents). There were dogs there, too. And many black people, especially elderly people of Alabama at that time “never mixed well” with dogs because the police would often unleash the dogs on people during protests. So, there was one old woman in particular that was scared stiff of the creatures and couldn’t enter the court room. When she finally did, she said “I’m here” so that the whole room could hear and she kept repeating it with tear in her eyes. I, just like Bryan, was clueless as to why she was doing it but these sentences helped me out: “In that moment, I felt something peculiar, a deep sense of recognition. I smiled now, because I knew she was saying to the room, ”I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I’m here because I’m supposed to be here. I’m here because you can’t keep me away.” I don’t know. This line right here made me fall in love with this book, I think.

In fact, I was sad this moment didn’t make it into the film. Just Mercy has a film starring Michael B. Jordan (love him!!) and Jamie Foxx. I actually watched this movie on a plane. I was randomly browsing through the collection and saw the name and was like “No way! They have a movie???” And so, I watched it. It’s embarrassing to say but I enjoy everything I watch; a film has to be extremely tedious for me to dislike it. But I think the film actually turned out quite alright. They managed to capture most important parts and I felt like that was how some scenes actually had happened in real life. Actors did a marvelous job too, especially the episodes at the prison and how all the death row inmates cheered each other up. I’d recommend it to other people because that’s a pretty accurate narration of the events (though they did embellish some things just for the sake of cinema) and more people need to get acquainted with them.

I watched the film twice and had to rewind the part where Mr. Chapman (the prosecutor) accedes to the defense a few times, that was a truly momentous episode that was depicted very well in the movie, too.

Okay, this is turning out to be quite a massive post and I have to divide it into two parts because I myself can get lost here.

The second part will be out on the Fifth of January (now I’m obligated to actually post it on this day.)