The debate about capital punishment rages around both philosophy and practice. While both sides make strong points about what should be, Brandon Garrett's Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (Harvard University Press, 2011) leaves little doubt about what is, or at least what has been.
University of Virginia law professor Garrett and his research assistants have performed a public service by collecting and analyzing cases involving 250 innocent people who went to prison and were later exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. Two-thirds of them were convicted of rape, and 30 percent either murder or murder plus rape. Seventeen were sentenced to death. They served an average of 13 years in prison.
Chapter after chapter explains what went wrong. Some suspects succumbed to police pressure and confessed to crimes that they did not commit, as DNA evidence later showed. Some reportedly confessed to details about the crime that only the killer or rapist could have known-but it appears that police or others improperly disclosed those facts to the accused.
Repeatedly, prosecution experts were not as expert as they claimed: They concocted false probabilities, used unreliable techniques, and had let the title of Dr. before their names go to their heads. Repeatedly, jailhouse informants claimed to have heard the accused utter self-incriminating words, and prosecutors rewarded lies by lightening the liars' sentences. Repeatedly, defense lawyers for poor individuals did not provide adequate representation, and appeals court judges did not grant new trials when they should have.
Garrett recommends changes in criminal procedure, crime labs, use of eyewitnesses, and interrogations: At least 500 police departments now videotape interrogations, and all should. All prosecutor conversations with jailhouse informants should also be recorded. Garrett's further recommendations all along the line have a common denominator: less reliance on unreliable human memory and unrecorded procedures that are hard to review. Increased use of DNA testing is necessary but not sufficient: Prosecutors, police, and others within the judicial system need to up their game, because it's no game.
Newt Gingrich's candidacy is over, so I happily do not have to examine further some still mysterious Clinton-Gingrich connections during the mid-1990s. Those wanting to explore that period might start with Elizabeth Drew's Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House (Simon & Schuster, 1996), and John F. Harris' The Survivor (Random House, 2005). Both are better than Bob Woodward's The Agenda (Simon & Schuster, 1995).
For useful tell-alls (probably tell-somes) by courtiers who yearned to be in the Inner Ring, try Behind the Oval Office by Dick Morris (Renaissance, 1999) and All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos (Little, Brown, 1999). For records of hubris, try Bill Clinton's My Life (Knopf, 2004) and Newt Gingrich's Lessons Learned the Hard Way (HarperCollins, 1998). Nigel Hamilton's Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency (Public Affairs, 2007) kisses up too much to be helpful.
Two collections of essays published by the Independence Institute in 2008-Lessons from the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, and Making Poor Nations Rich: Entrepreneurship and the Process of Economic Development-show that economic freedom fosters economic growth, that government-to-government aid doesn't help, and that regulatory and judicial reform are essential.
Two books published in 2010 show the trouble America is in. Back on the Road to Serfdom, edited by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (ISI), includes scholarly but readable essays on the economic and cultural effects of government growth over the past century. Peter Ferrara's The Obamacare Disaster (Heartland Institute) succinctly shreds the laughably named Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Finally, Obama staffers would not have wasted billions of dollars had they absorbed the lessons of Josh Lerner's Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed-and What to Do About It (Princeton, 2009).