Through a series of thoughtful reflection questions and supplementary resources online, this study guide serves as an accompaniment to the film Just Mercy and offers viewers a way to explore the Catholic call to uphold the sanctity of life within the U.S. criminal legal system.
Based on the bestselling book by Bryan Stevenson, the film Just Mercy presents the stunning and true story of Walter McMillian, a Black man convicted and sentenced to death in Alabama in 1988 for a crime he did not commit. The film illustrates the structural racism endemic to our capital punishment system, and lays bare how this system devalues and cheapens all human life.
Was there a specific scene in the film that you found gripping, interesting, or unexpected? Which scene was it, and why?
Was there a character in the film you particularly identified with? If so, why?
Did you find any examples of hope, resilience, or redemption in the film? Where?
The film does not feature the perspectives of the family of the victim, Ronda Morrison. What do you think they were feeling during the appeals of the case?
The Death Penalty and our Catholic Faith
Before watching Just Mercy, what did you think about the death penalty? Has your sense of it changed? If so, how?
How does your Catholic faith influence your opinion of the death penalty?
As Catholics, we are called to uphold a consistent ethic of life, regardless of whether a person is innocent or guilty. Describe how this makes you feel. Would you have felt differently about Walter’s death sentence if he had been guilty of the crime?
Our Broken Criminal Legal System
In the film, during a conversation between Walter and Bryan, Walter says “In Alabama [...] you’re guilty from the moment you’re born.” What do you think he meant by that statement?
Throughout Just Mercy there are many examples of oppression (systemic racism, poverty, lack of mental health services, and others). How might things have turned out differently for the men on death row had they not faced such barriers?
Our country’s traditional legal system tends to focus solely on which law was broken, who is guilty, and how they should be punished. Does this way of addressing crime and harm reflect our Gospel values? If not, why not?
"Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that 'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,' and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide."
"Too many good and faithful Catholics remain unaware of the connection between institutional racism and the continued erosion of the sanctity of life. We are not finished with the work. The evil of racism festers in part because, as a nation, there has been very limited formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often a neglect of our history"
In the eyes of the Church, both capital punishment and racism are considered life issues of great importance, due to the manner in which they violate human dignity. Consider the following statements:
1999 - “I renew the appeal [for]... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnessary.” - St. John Paul II (St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999)
2011 - “Society’s leaders should make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.” - Pope Benedict XVI (Benin, Africa, Nov. 19, 2011)
2015 - “Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” - Pope Francis (Washington, D.C., September 24, 2015)