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‘Just Mercy’ — along with past VCU common books — inspires students to work toward justice

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Tanner Key.
Photos by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

When Tanner Key read “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” over spring break, he could not help but reflect on his own frightening experience with the juvenile justice system.

The book, a 2014 memoir by lawyer Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, chronicles Stevenson's work defending the poor, the wrongfully convicted and the children trapped in an unfair criminal justice system. Key found he was so inspired by the book that he was prepared to alter his life and career plans in response to it. Not long after spring break, Key switched his major from finance to international studies with a concentration in international social justice.

I read the first chapter and realized that if I wanted to change something the only person holding me back was me.

“My eyes were already opened to the injustice of the criminal justice system, but I didn’t think I could do anything about it,” he said. “I read the first chapter and realized that if I wanted to change something the only person holding me back was me.”

“Just Mercy” is this year’s selection of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Common Book Program, in which a committee of faculty, staff and students chooses a book that would have the greatest impact on incoming students, introducing them to interdisciplinary ideas and new perspectives on important social issues. A key goal of the program is to inspire students like Key, as well as others, such as Madison Jennings, a VCU graduate who was inspired to study law after reading the 2010 Common Book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

“Often the books’ topics resonate with students in a particularly deep way, affecting not only how they view their world but also influencing what they want to do in the future,” said Micol Hutchison, Ph.D., director of program development and student success for University College, which runs VCU’s Common Book Program. “This reflects some of the wonderful attributes of VCU students: They are curious, passionate, engaged and committed to making the world a better place."

A brush with juvenile justice

When Key was 17, police raided his family’s home in Northern Virginia and arrested him as part of a marijuana distribution ring. He was placed in juvenile detention for a few days before being confined to house arrest for two months, followed by a year-and-a-half of a sort of “self-probation.”

Key’s parents hired him an expensive lawyer and his case slowly worked its way through the court system.

“The reason the case carried on for so long was because I was a part of a huge operation and I was the only minor involved,” he said. “The detective kept pushing the prosecutor to treat me as an adult and deliver a harsh punishment. I had a good lawyer so he kept continuing the case until we got the outcome we wanted.”

Ultimately, Key’s case landed before a judge who had been a friend of Key’s late grandfather. He ended up with a minimal charge and $100 fine.

“I’ll never be sure if my race, my privilege, or my family connection is why I was let off so easy. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty,” said Key, who transferred to VCU from Northern Virginia Community College. “I had met kids in juvenile detention who had done way less severe crimes but languished in their cells for months because they either had no one or their parents had no money to get them out.” 

Bryan Stevenson, author of VCU’s 2016–17 common book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” will speak at VCU on April 12 at 6 p.m. at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, 1200 W. Broad St. in Richmond. The event will be free and open to the public.

Key read “Just Mercy” somewhat reluctantly over spring break while flying back from a trip to London and Iceland. He had a lot of homework that he didn't want to do and he found himself questioning his direction in life.

“I decided I was either going to take a break from school and join the military or just work and travel,” Key said. “The plane home had no Wi-Fi and I couldn’t sleep because I was in the middle seat. I had ‘Just Mercy’ with me and I decided to start reading.”

In the book’s introduction, Stevenson describes how and why he started representing the poor and the incarcerated, and Key realized he wanted to follow in a similar direction.

Key is now planning to apply to law school after graduating from VCU.

“I always actually wanted to be a lawyer but discouraged myself because of the cost and time of education,” he said. “After reading ‘Just Mercy,’ I finally found the courage to do what I actually wanted without regard for what anyone else or society thinks. I could have easily gone on to make money but I instead chose to be the change I want to see in the world.”

Without the VCU Common Book Program, he added, he might never have made that decision.

“Engaging with the common book in their Focused Inquiry curriculum, and as part of their first-year experience, is intended to provide students the opportunity to discover, explore, and delve into these topics,” said Shelli Fowler, Ph.D., interim dean of University College and director of the Common Book Initiative. “The interdisciplinary focus can also introduce students to fields of study and future professions they hadn’t yet considered.” 

Inspiring students over the years

Madison Jennings.
Madison Jennings.

Jennings, who graduated from VCU in 2014 with degrees from the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences and in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, was greatly inspired by VCU’s 2010 Common Book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Jennings, now a second-year law student at the University of Richmond, said the book contributed to her decision to study the law.

“Reading ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ the summer before I started college significantly impacted the way I looked at the world, and whether or not I felt that the world was ‘fair,’ so to speak,” she said. “It definitely caused me to look a little more closely at the world, and at whether or not an ‘ends-justifies-the-means’ mentality is ever really appropriate.”

The book, by science journalist Rebecca Skloot, tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black mother of five in Baltimore who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge or consent, doctors at Johns Hopkins took tissue samples from her cervix for research, spawning the first viable cell line — called HeLa — that led to medical discoveries such as the polio vaccine and AIDS treatments.

“Here was a situation that could have been really easily ignored — yes, there are these cells, no one really knows anything about the woman they came from, but who really cares? That Rebecca Skloot felt compelled to spend so much of her life questioning the origins of the cells, and figuring out the entire story behind them felt like something really amazing to me,” Jennings said. “I was also struck by how the story of Henrietta, and how her contributions to the world went both uncompensated and unrecognized for so long.”

Earlier this semester, Jennings returned to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” using it as inspiration for a scholarly legal article, which has since been selected for publication in the Richmond Journal of Law and Technology.

“When I needed a topic for an academic paper, Henrietta’s story ended up being the first thing that I thought of, and although I looked into alternative ideas, that one really stuck with me,” she said. “Genetic information law and policy is such a new area, and it just hasn't been able to keep up with technological advancements as they're being made. I thought it would be worthwhile to use Henrietta's story as the framework for a critical look at the shortcomings of current protections of personal genetic material and information.”

 

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