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Facing the Death Penalty: Essays on a Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Michael Radelet

Publication Year: 2011

"These essays...show us the human and inhuman realities of capital punishment through the eyes of the condemned and those who work with them. By focusing on those awaiting death, they present the awful truth behind the statistics in concrete, personal terms." —William J. Bowers, author of Legal Homicide Between 1930 and 1967, there were 3,859 executions carried out under state and civil authority in the United States. Since the ten-year moratorium on capital punishment ended in 1977, more than one hundred prisoners have been executed. There are more than two thousand men and women now living on death row awaiting their executions. Facing the Death Penalty offers an in-depth examination of what life under a sentence of death is like for condemned inmates and their families, how and why various professionals assist them in their struggle for life, and what these personal experiences with capital punishment tell us about the wisdom of this penal policy. The contributors include historians, attorneys, sociologists, anthropologists, criminologists, a minister, a philosopher, and three prisoners. One of the prisoner-contributors is Willie Jasper Darden, Jr., whose case and recent execution after fourteen years on death row drew international attention. The inter-disciplinary perspectives offered in this book will not solve the death penalty debate, but they offer important and unique insights on the full effects of American capital punishment provisions. While the book does not set out to generate sympathy for those convicted of horrible crimes, taken together, the essays build a case for abolition of the death penalty. "This work stands with the best of what’s been written. It represents the best of those who have seen the worst." —Colman McCarthy, The Washington Post Book World

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

Speaking on the floor of the House of Commons in Ottawa in 1976 in support of a bill to abolish capital punishment in Canada, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau reminded the members of the Commons: "It is not open to anyone among us to take refuge in the comforting illusion that we are debating nothing more than an abstract theory of criminal justice ....

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1. Introduction and Overview

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pp. 3-15

Between 1930 and 1967 there were 3,859 executions carried out under state and civil authority in the United States (U.S. Department of Justice, 1986). The peak year, 1935, saw 199 executions, but not since 1951 has the annual figure surpassed. 100. Between then and 1967 the pace of executions declined to the point where, in the decade of the 1960s, a total of 191...

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2. The Fraternity of Death

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pp. 16-26

In 1977 the California state legislature passed Senator George Deukmejian's bill establishing death as punishment for certain classes of first-degree murder. In 1978 California voters passed the Briggs initiative, which widened the scope of the death penalty's application. From that time until 1 November 1987,265 death sentences or resentences have been meted out, all for...

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3. Facing the Death Penalty

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pp. 27-37

Only one who has endured the experience can fully understand the thoughts and emotions of a person who has been condemned to die at the hands of the executioner. Such an individual is kept in close confinement, deprived of all the creature comforts of life, forced to contemplate a sudden and violent death by a means already ordained and known to him or her. It is a period...

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4. Juveniles' Attitudes Toward Their Impending Executions

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pp. 38-59

Over the last three and a half centuries, American jurisdictions have executed 281 people for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18 (see Streib, 1987:55-71). Their ages at execution ranged from 12 to 28. All were healthy young people with no reason to expect to die from natural causes in the foreseeable future. All came to contemplate their deaths from...

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5. Burning at the Wire: The Execution of John Evans

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pp. 60-80

I stared at my client, John Evans, sitting on Alabama's electric chair. They call the chair "Yellow Mama." John's head was shaved; he had declined the State's offer to let him wear his own clothes and was wearing prison garb. His hands and legs were strapped to the chair. The witnesses were now in place in the observation room, separated by a glass partition from the execution...

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6. Another Attorney for Life

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pp. 81-91

As the number of condemned prisoners in the United States grows, so does the problem of finding competent attorneys to handle death penalty cases when the execution date draws near (Mello, 1988). In this essay, I would like to reflect on the motivations, rewards, and frustrations connected with this type of work, based on my five years of defending those who live...

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7. Representing the Death Row Inmate: The Ethics of Advocacy, Collateral Style

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pp. 92-111

Representing an inmate on death row in collateral proceedings, which occur after the trial and initial appeal have run their course, is an unusual undertaking for volunteer lawyers. But it can be one of the most important, and even one of the most rewarding, experiences in a legal career. Handling capital cases in their collateral phase is unusual partly because there are relatively few...

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8. Ministering to the Condemned: A Case Study

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pp. 112-122

I am firmly convinced that if the citizens of the United States fully understood the nature and effects of the death penalty, we would no longer allow the punishment to be imposed. Unfortunately, however, many people have been misinformed or have closed their minds about this issue, and the media coverage of executions, if present at all, is steadily shrinking.

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9. Coping with Death: Families of the Terminally Ill, Homicide Victims, and Condemned Prisoners

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pp. 123-138

The experiences of the families of the terminally ill and the institutional supports available to them have been extensively studied. In contrast, the literature on the families of homicide victims is surprisingly sparse, and almost nothing has been written about the families of condemned prisoners. To some extent, this may reflect the number of people involved in...

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10. Rituals of Death: Capital Punishment and Human Sacrifice

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pp. 139-155

We were perplexed by the resurgence of enthusiasm for the death penalty in the United States. According to a 1986 Gallup Report, support for the death penalty in America has reached a near-record high in 50 years of polling, with 70 percent of Americans favoring execution of convicted murderers (Gallup, 1986). In a 1983 poll conducted in Florida, 72 percent...

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11. The Death Penalty and Anthropology

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pp. 156-168

To many it may still seem strange that sociocultural anthropology should he concerned with an indigenous institution such as the death penalty. Even among those anthropologists who might support such an interest, there would probably be a sharp divergence as to the approach, both methodological and theoretical. The divergence I can accept, for such differentiation is most...

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12. Working the Dead

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pp. 169-177

Death Row is deeded to the notion that these men, of all the criminals in the penitentiary, are special. They are the ones society has said are not capable or deserving of redemption or reform .... To give them schooling, training, or therapy would create an ambiguity the system is not ready to manage and which it has no desire to have become overt: it would...

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13. How to Argue About the Death Penalty

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pp. 178-192

Argument over the death penalty-especially in the United States during the past generation-has been concentrated in large part on trying to answer various disputed questions of fact. Among them two have been salient: Is the death penalty a better deterrent to crime (especially murder) than the alternative of imprisonment? Is the death penalty administered in a...

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14. The Pains of Life

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pp. 193-197

Seven years ago I began the process of awaiting my man-made appointment with death. Since being condemned to death, my days have been spent dealing with the guilt of having been convicted of taking the lives of two human beings, confronting the very real possibility of my own violent death, and coping with the anger, resentment, frustration, helplessness, and...

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15. The Isolation of Death Row

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pp. 198-202

It is no secret among American jail and prison inmates that the conditions of confinement in the states' maximum-security institutions are such that coping with one's day-to-day existence requires constant struggle. Yet, having heard these stories, I must admit that their simplifications and exaggerations create an unrealistic picture of what the experience of being placed in solitary...

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16. An Inhumane Way of Death

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pp. 203-205

Ironically, there is probably more hope on death row than would be found in most other places. Each of us has been convicted of murder. Some are guilty and a few are innocent. But the one thing we all have in common is that we await our demise side by side-the innocent and the guilty alike. We hope because it would be so easy for our fate to be changed. Hope is one...

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About the Authors

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pp. 207-209

Hugo Adam Bedau is the Austin Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. His most recent book, Death Is Different: Studies in the Morality, Law, and Politics of Capital Punishment, was published by Northeastern University Press in 1987. Russell F. Canan is a partner in the law firm of Milliken, Van Susteren & Canan in Washington, D.C. He...


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pp. 211-215

E-ISBN-13: 9781439907801

Publication Year: 2011