Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Just Mercy

Was Bryan Stevenson really strip-searched? Was the judge really named “Robert E. Lee”? We break down the new movie.

Michael B. Jordan, looking dapper in a silver suit. Bryan Stevenson, also looking dapper and handsome, albeit in a blue suit, and not *quite* as handsome. In the bottom right, the Fact vs. Fiction series logo.
Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy beside the real Bryan Stevenson.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Warner Bros. and Brad Barket/Getty Images for POLITICO.

Just Mercy, director Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, is about the exoneration of Walter McMillian, a black man who spent nearly six years on Alabama’s death row after being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. The film is about inertia as much as anything: When Stevenson looks into McMillian’s case, it is immediately apparent he had nothing to do with the crime, but it still takes years to clear his name, simply because the gears of justice have started grinding. Just Mercy is structured like a standard legal thriller—secrets uncovered, wrongs righted, justice done, and so on—with one exception, which is that no one is punished in the end. The murder remains unsolved to this day, and the people who ruined McMillian’s life prospered in the aftermath.

McMillian’s prosecution and exoneration have been the subject of two books: Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town, a 1995 true crime book about the murder by journalist Pete Earley, and Stevenson’s memoir, also called Just Mercy, which is structured around the McMillian case but also covers the early years of the Equal Justice Initiative. We consulted both of those books, contemporary news reports, and court documents to sort out what’s true and what’s artistic license in the new movie.

Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx)

Jamie Foxx in a prison uniform.
Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian in Just Mercy,
JAKE GILES NETTER/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Walter McMillian’s ordeal is more or less accurately portrayed in Just Mercy: He was arrested in 1987 and charged with the murder of Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old white woman who was shot in broad daylight at the Monroeville, Alabama dry-cleaning shop where she worked. McMillian was convicted after a trial that lasted only a day and a half. An overwhelmingly white jury sentenced him to life in prison, but the judge overrode the jury and condemned him to die.

Attorney Bryan Stevenson took McMillian’s case in 1988, and in 1993 secured McMillian’s freedom after demonstrating that the prosecution had withheld evidence and pressured their star witness into lying. For a thumbnail sketch of the facts, here’s the 60 Minutes report about McMillian’s case that is featured in the movie. It aired on Nov. 22, 1992, and if that seems like a long time ago, it was the middle segment in an episode that also featured Woody Allen defending himself against molestation charges and a piece about a grassroots anti-deficit group that was coincidentally funded by a private equity billionaire, so how long ago could it have been? Besides McMillian, the segment features the real Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), the real Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the real Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), and a pantheon of the film’s minor characters. Also featured: death row at Holman Prison, meticulously recreated in the movie, plus a news report about McMillian’s exoneration.

Just Mercy’s McMillian corresponds pretty closely to the man depicted in both the 60 Minutes segment and Stevenson’s memoir, but it’s perhaps worth noting that Earley’s book is a little harsher on him, alleging that—although rumors during the trial that McMillian was a player in the Dixie mafia were nonsense—he really was a small-time marijuana dealer, who’d been investigated by both the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and local police, for whatever that’s worth. Earley also sniffs at Stevenson sanding off his client’s rougher edges at a prayer breakfast at Montgomery’s AME church shortly after McMillian was freed:

…[Stevenson] spoke passionately, without notes, about how politics, racial bias, and money all corrupt the justice system. Much of this talk was about Johnny D. There was no mention of marijuana, no talk about an affair with Karen Kelly or weekends spent at nightclubs.

But every source agrees about one thing: McMillian had nothing to do with the murder of Ronda Morison. In any event, if the film version of Just Mercy underplays the slightly disreputable things McMillian may have done before being railroaded, it also underplays the horror of what was done to him. Being on death row was a constant nightmare in which even small gestures of rebellion—it’s an Alabama prison tradition to bang cups on the bars during an execution—bring no comfort. “We were all banging on the bars to protest, to make ourselves feel better, but really it just made me sick,” McMillian said about one execution during his time there.

Even being completely exonerated didn’t end the torment the state of Alabama caused him. The film’s closing chyron notes that McMillian died in 2013 after suffering from early-onset dementia and that “his years on death row weighed heavily on him till the end.” You have to go to Stevenson’s book to figure out what that meant in practical terms, but it is awful. Here’s Stevenson’s account of a conversation he had with McMillian in the common room of a nursing home he was staying in, years after he’d been completely exonerated:

“Well, it looks like I’m back here,” [McMillian] said with a heavy sigh. “They done put me back on death row.”

“Walter, this isn’t the row. You haven’t been feeling well, and so you’re here so you can get better. This is a hospital.”

“They’ve got me again, and you’ve got to help me.”

He was starting to panic, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Then he stared crying. “Please get me out of here. Please? They’re going to execute me for no good reason, and I don’t want to die in no electric chair.” He was crying now with a forcefulness that alarmed me.

When McMillian died, the Monroe Journal—a newspaper whose vitriolic coverage of his trial and its aftermath is well documented in both books—ran an obituary that did not mention his trial.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan)

Just Mercy follows Stevenson’s self-portrait in his memoir very closely. The real Stevenson, circa 1992, is heavily featured in the 60 Minutes segment above. For an introduction to what he’s like today, here is his 2012 TED Talk.

The differences between Stevenson in the film and Stevenson in his memoir are mostly matters of dramatic compression: anecdotes Stevenson tells about other cases he handled are moved to the McMillian case, which saves the movie the time and trouble of explaining five or six different unjust criminal trials. For example, the movie features a white prison guard (Hayes Mercure) who initially forces Stevenson to strip search before meeting with a client. Over the course of the movie, the guard has a quiet change of heart while observing Stevenson at work and life on death row, which is dramatized by improved treatment of Stevenson and McMillian both. In the memoir, this happens while meeting with a different client at a different prison, and the guard’s change of heart comes after hearing Stevenson testify about the horrible abuse his client suffered in the foster care system, because the guard was also a former foster kid.

Meanwhile, an incident in which the police pulled their weapons on Stevenson for sitting in his car outside of his apartment in Atlanta is relocated to a traffic stop in Alabama—although the bomb threats and general creepiness from the locals are mentioned in both books.

Finally, in real life, Stevenson isn’t quite as good-looking as Michael B. Jordan, but few people are.

Eva Ansley (Brie Larson)

Brie Larson staring intensely with curls of hair dripping down her face
Brie Larson as Eva Ansley
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Brie Larson plays Eva Ansley, who in real life co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative with Stevenson and currently serves as its operations director. Larson explained why she found Ansley inspirational at this year’s Variety Power of Women event, then brought her out on stage to talk about her work:

In the 1980s, Ansley was running a project pairing condemned men with lawyers in Alabama while Stevenson was doing similar work at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. In 1988, they secured federal funding to set up the nonprofit that eventually became the Equal Justice Initiative. The scene in the movie in which Ansley chews out a landlord for refusing to rent them office space because of their work doesn’t come from Stevenson’s book, but he does note that the University of Alabama School of Law had promised them office space, then backed out of the deal. (In the screenplay, the location is identified as an officie building in Montgomery, so the landlord is not a stand-in for University of Alabama officials: The school is in Tuscaloosa.) But judging from Stevenson’s memoir, Larson’s performance is true to life.

Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson)

Tim Blake Nelson in a prison uniform, his mouth twisted to one side
Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers in Just Mercy
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Ralph Myers, the career criminal who testified that Walter McMillian killed Ronda Morrison, only to recant the entire story years later at Stevenson’s prodding, really did the things he’s shown doing in the movie. As you can see in the 60 Minutes clip, Tim Blake Nelson’s performance eerily recreates Myers’ tics and delivery, while Just Mercy’s makeup team recreate the injuries Myers suffered in a childhood fire. He had the fire-related phobias you’d expect, and really was moved to death row when he stopped cooperating with the police. Circumstantial Evidence goes much deeper into Myers’ ties to the other people involved in the case, but Just Mercy gets the details pertinent to McMillian’s fight for freedom right.
His testimony at McMillian’s first trial was a ridiculous story that was impossible to reconcile with the physical evidence. It nevertheless got McMillian sentenced to death.

Similarly, there really was a recording of Myers insisting he knew nothing about the murder, and the prosecution really didn’t turn it over to the defense, and his testimony, which nearly got Walter McMillian killed, really was that absurd on its face.

Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan)

Rob Morgan is lead to the electric chair
Warner Bros.
Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson in Just Mercy.

Herbert Richardson, the Vietnam veteran whose execution Stevenson attends after failing to save him from the death penalty, was a real client, but the movie doesn’t dwell on how he got there. In real life, Richardson had psychological problems from his combat experiences—he was the only survivor of an ambush that killed his entire platoon—and ended up in a Veterans Affairs hospital in New York after the war. He moved to Alabama to follow a nurse he had met at the hospital, dated her, and was happy, for a time. But after the couple broke up, Richardson decided the best way to win her back was to plant a bomb on her porch, then save her from it. Unfortunately, the woman’s 10-year-old niece picked up the bomb and was killed instantly in the ensuing blast.

There are other aspects of Richardson’s story where the film diverges from Stevenson’s book. In the movie, Richardson tells the Army to send the flag from his funeral to Stevenson, because he was “the only one who cared enough to fight for me.” In real life, Richardson got married while in prison, and, according to Just Mercy, kept bugging Stevenson to make sure the military sent his flag to his new wife’s address. He did really play “The Old Rugged Cross” over the prison P.A. system on the night of his execution, though.

Tom Chapman (Rafe Spall)

Rafe Spall sits in a courtroom, looking smug,
Rafe Spall as Tom Chapman in Just Mercy.
Warner Bros.

Tom Chapman, the prosecutor who did the most to fight McMillian’s release, seems to have behaved even more badly in real life than he does in Just Mercy. The film traces his journey from indifference to McMillian’s case—he wasn’t the original prosecutor—to fanatical opposition to McMillian’s release, to grudging acceptance of McMillian’s innocence in exactly the same way the book does, and Chapman really did all those things. He arrested and indicted one of Stevenson’s witnesses for perjury after the witness came forward with exculpatory evidence, then dropped the charges when Stevenson pointed out they were obviously an intimidation tactic. He really gave that heartless 60 Minutes interview. Then he really joined the defense’s motion to have all charges dropped. But neither version of Just Mercy captures the level of animosity Chapman felt for Stevenson that Circumstantial Evidence describes, nor his description of their first meeting, from the same book:

Stevenson didn’t know me or anything about me, and yet he comes in here and he has this attitude of “I’m a Harvard-educated lawyer and I’m going to come down here and tell these honkies how to do their job. … Well, I’m just as smart as that guy, even if I didn’t go to Harvard. And just because we don’t see things eye to eye doesn’t mean that I’m not a moral person. What right did he have to come lecture me about morals?

For his part, Stevenson was apparently even less of a fan of Chapman’s in real life than he appears to be in either version of Just Mercy. In their very first phone conversation, Chapman said he’d tell Judge Key to give him a fair shake the next time he saw him at a restaurant where they both ate; Stevenson later told Earley, “I could just see Pearson and Judge Key eating dinner together at the local country club. Two white good old boys deciding how justice would be dispensed in Monroe County.”

But the biggest thing missing from Just Mercy’s portrait of Chapman is his relationship to the press. Except for 60 Minutes and a constant scrum of reporters outside the courthouse, the media is mostly absent from this story about someone being railroaded—for a movie with the exact opposite problem, see Richard Jewell—and that’s a shame, because Chapman spent almost the entire process complaining to the Monroe Journal about the case. The morning after his disastrous 60 Minutes interview aired, Chapman told the paper, “For them to hold themselves up as a reputable news show is beyond belief and irresponsible.”

Sheriff Thomas Tate

In the movie’s scene in which Tate arrests McMillian, he taunts him by saying things like, “Those rims look like they cost you a pretty penny—who’ve you been working for?” That’s shitty, but in Walter McMillian’s version of the story, as reported in court filings, Tate said much worse: “He said he was going to stop us niggers from fucking these white women himself. He told me he was going to stop that.” And then Tate said, according to McMillian, “I ought to take you off and hang you like we done that nigger in Mobile, but we can’t stand that suit.”

Tate has categorically denied saying any of this. What’s not in dispute is that he arranged McMillian’s arrest rather differently than it appears in the film. Tate couldn’t charge Walter McMillian with the murder of Ronda Morrison on the basis of Ralph Myers’ testimony alone, but Myers’ say-so was enough to arrest him on a sodomy charge. So that’s what Tate went with, after a search of McMillian’s truck yielded no marijuana—although he had to explain to Walter what the word “sodomy” meant. Crucially, Tate arrested McMillian in his truck, which gave him a pretext to drive the truck to the police station—Tate drove it personally—which made it possible to have a prisoner who said he knew something about the case see the truck and positively identify it as the one he claimed he’d seen outside the cleaners around the time of the shooting, which gave Tate the minimum number of witnesses he’d need to charge McMillian with Morrison’s murder. Neat! And way too complex to try to fit into a movie that already makes the point that McMillian was railroaded in a billion other ways. Earley goes into more detail about the political pressures Tate and Chapman were under, but the circumstances under which McMillian ended up in prison were even dodgier than they appear in the movie.

Tate was also responsible for the scene in which McMillian’s son Johnny is tackled by deputies in the courtroom. The incident actually happened during the reading of the initial guilty verdict, before Stevenson was involved, and Earley and Stevenson don’t agree about all the facts—Stevenson has the courtroom tackle, Earley has Sheriff Tate issuing an arrest warrant for Johnny afterwards and making his mom drive him back to court be booked—but in both versions, Tate claimed Johnny said something along the lines of “Somebody’s going to pay for what they’ve done to my father.”

Tate also seems to have been the government official who was most reluctant to accept that McMillian was innocent, even after he was finally released from prison. After the Alabama Bureau of Investigation reopened the Morrison case, independently investigated, and failed to find any evidence at all that McMillian had anything to do with the murder, Tate was still going around saying things like, “It seems to me that we had a pretty airtight case until those two ABI boys pulled into town.”

Naturally, Tate’s behavior crippled his career in Alabama law enforcement, and—wait, he actually remained the sheriff of Monroe County until 2018, when he decided not to seek re-election because of his age. He’d made the national news again that February, when it emerged that he’d pocketed more than $110,000 in funds the state paid him to feed inmates, the beneficiary of an old Alabama law that allowed sheriffs to keep any excess money they didn’t spend on prison food. Faced with public approbation, Tate told the Monroe Journal, “It hurts my feelings to be accused of doing something wrong.”

The Judges

The judge at McMillian’s criminal trial—the one who decided that the death penalty was more appropriate than the life sentence the jury had decided on—really was named Robert E. Lee Key, Jr., and really did describe the crime as “the vicious and brutal killing of a young lady in the first full flower of adulthood.” Not too surprisingly, McMillian’s case is not the only stain on his record: In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to let the State of Alabama execute a man named Brian Baldwin. Baldwin was prosecuted by Theodore Pearson, the same D.A. as McMillian, in a case overseen by Key in which Pearson called the defendant, who was black, “that savage,” Key called the defendant “boy,” black jurors were systematically excluded, and Key was asked to adjudicate whether or not his own behavior had been racist. (He decided it was not, and Baldwin has been dead for 20 years now.)

But for all the harm Key did, he wasn’t the most frustrating judge in the McMillian affair. In the movie, the hearing in which Stevenson submits the overwhelming evidence that McMillian was innocent is referred to as “Judge Foster,” played by Lindsay Ayliffe, looking as much like Jeff Sessions as possible. That hearing was actually overseen by Judge Thomas B. Norton Jr., and Judge Foster’s most ludicrous-seeming dialogue is actually taken straight from an order Judge Norton wrote saying that he had no reason to believe Myers had perjured himself during the original trial.

The only judge who comes out of the movie (or the books about the real-life McMillian case) without looking terrible is Judge Pamela Baschab (played by Rhoda Griffis in the movie), who issued the order that finally freed McMillian. She retired in 2008.