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Death reads

Books | The best among a mountain of books about capital punishment

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

Three hundred and thirty-eight. That’s the number of books on capital punishment I counted in two areas of the main library of The University of Texas at Austin (Library of Congress catalog numbers HV8699 and KF9227).

Among the evocative titles: Death in the Balance, Hanging in the Balance, An Eye for an Eye?, The Last Face You’ll Ever See, Congregation of the Condemned, In the Image of God, Last Meal, A Kiss of Death, The Death Game, Who Owns Death?, Death Defying, Rites of Execution, The Hangman’s Knot, Among the Lowest of the Dead, Death in the Dark, Justice in the Shadow of Death, Final Exposure, No Winners Here Tonight, The Fairer Death, Bloodsworth, and The Rope, the Chair, and the Needle.

Some books have double-edged names: Executing Justice, Just Revenge, Killing Time, Dead Wrong. Many were clearly opposed to capital punishment: Wounds That Do Not Bind, Don’t Kill in Our Names, Death Is Different, Capital Revenge, Beyond Repair, Society’s Final Solution, Legal Homicide, Cruel and Unusual, Choosing Mercy. A few were on the other side: For Capital Punishment, Oui à la Peine de Mort.

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After reading many books on the subject, my nomination for the best brief, overall one—tightly written and thoughtful—is David Oshinsky’s well-researched, well-written Capital Punishment on Trial (University Press of Kansas, 2010). It’s full of interesting tidbits, such as: “More than one in ten of the executions carried out in the United States in the past three decades [came after] the defendant opposed third-party intervention and waived all post-conviction appeals.”

Oshinsky describes how Supreme Court justices, depending on their presuppositions, sympathized with different actors in capital punishment tragedies. Harry Blackmun, who had little sympathy for unborn children in his Roe v. Wade decision, felt sorry for a man on death row for 10 years and then given the fatal chemical injection. Antonin Scalia wrote about a person suddenly bleeding out on the floor of a tavern with no opportunity to prepare for death, or a 10-year-old raped and killed with her clothing stuck in her mouth.

Runner-up for most useful book is David Garland’s Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (Harvard University Press, 2010), which describes how Supreme Court justices favoring abolition argued that “evolving standards of decency” made the death penalty a cruel and unusual punishment, although that’s clearly not what those who approved the Eighth Amendment thought of it. Opponents of capital punishment also cited the 14th Amendment as they argued that courts were denying capital defendants due process and equal protection.

Some honorable mentions: Dale Recinella, The Biblical Truth about America’s Death Penalty (Northeastern University Press, 2004), is well-written, but he cherry-picks verses from the Talmud with the goal of saying Judaism at the time of Christ and during the several centuries thereafter was opposed to capital punishment. Don Reid’s Have a Seat, Please (Texas Review Press, 2001) notes that “life sentences” in Texas once meant freedom in no more than 10 years. Relatively easy parole went along with more executions.

Alex Kozinski’s Debating the Death Penalty (Oxford University Press, 2004) is a judge’s analysis of both law and personal torments. Kozinski self-critically writes, “I’d never want to witness an execution. Yet I sometimes wonder whether those of us who make life-and-death decisions on a regular basis should not be required to watch as the machinery of death grinds up a human being.”

The list of death penalty books grows year by year. Useful scholarly books on the subject published in 2013 include Alfred Heilbrun Jr.’s The Case for Capital Punishment (Rowman and Littlefield) and Robert M. Bohm’s Capital Punishment’s Collateral Damage (Carolina Academic Press). Supporters of capital punishment speak of providing just retribution, deterring other murders, easing the pain of those who loved the victim, and honoring God’s image in man. Opponents speak about unjust and unreliable penalties, a lack of deterrence—and honoring God’s image in man.

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss his cover story on the death penalty on The World and Everything in It:

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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