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David Garland's important new study, Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (2010), argues that the persistent legacy of slavery, lynching, and racism accounts for America's unique reluctance to fully relinquish the death penalty. Like Garland, Amy L. Sayward and Margaret Vandiver, in their engaging Tennessee's New Abolitionists: The Fight to End the Death Penalty in the Volunteer State, place Tennessee's circuitous effort to abolish the death penalty in the context of the political, economic, and social history of the state, all of which were influenced in varying degrees by racial issues.
Sayward states in the introduction that the "history of the abolition movement in Tennessee provides a valuable window on America's history with capital punishment" (p. 13). Tennessee's New Abolitionists, although placed within the context of the modernization [End Page 136] of the New South period and religious movements that support both sides of the issue, falls short in effectively positioning Tennessee in the larger context of the American death-penalty abolition movement. This task would have entailed a detailed examination of the reform and religious movements that led to successful abolition efforts in other parts of the country.
Instead, Sayward, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University, and Vandiver, a professor of criminology at the University of Memphis and author of Lethal Punishment: Lynching and Legal Executions in the South (2005), offer a collection of essays that constitute a highly sympathetic account of death-penalty abolitionist work in the state. The dedication of the book to the memory of death-penalty abolitionist Harmon Wray aptly conveys the tone.
The two essays written by the editors remain the most substantive in this collection. The essays trace the "ambivalence" of the abolitionist past of Tennessee, from Governor John Sevier's request of the state legislature to eliminate the death penalty through the short-lived Progressive-era abolition of the death penalty for murder—but not for rape. The essays further note that abolitionist efforts in Tennessee subsided until the 1950s. Citing the influence of the Highlander Folk School and the efforts of Governor Frank Clement to eradicate the death penalty, the essays also trace the impact in Tennessee of U.S. Supreme Court decisions Furman v. Georgia (1972), which ruled that the death penalty in this and two other cases under consideration constituted cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violated the U.S. Constitution, and Gregg v. Georgia (1976), which in effect upheld the death penalty and led to the reinstatement of Tennessee's death penalty in 1977. Although the current death row population of Tennessee is over ninety, it has carried out only six executions since 1976, placing it last in number of executions among the former states of the Confederacy. These chapters, which are a significant portion of Part I: "The History of the Abolition Movement in Tennessee," are clearly the outstanding contributions in the collection of essays; in fact, the book would have been more convincing if the focus had remained historical. [End Page 137]
Part II: "Confronting Capital Punishment in the Volunteer State" is instead largely anecdotal, with the exception of Bill Redick's essay, which describes in detail death-penalty defense representation. Part II includes former Tennessee Supreme Court associate justice Penny White's essay on "Judicial Independence and Capital Punishment in Tennessee," which offers a brief overview on judicial selection in Tennessee and the impact of politics on the judiciary, but concludes with an extensive "Case in Point" in which she describes herself as "the target of a successful 'just say no' campaign" (p. 174). Dixie Gamble's painful firsthand experience with the mental illness of her own son clearly influences her essay on mental illness and the American judicial system.
Part III concludes the essay collection with contributions from "Rarely Heard Voices," including reflections of death-row inmates, members of the clergy who work with these prisoners, and the abolitionist...