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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 460-464
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Too Close for Insight
William S. McFeely. Proximity to Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. 206 pp. Notes and index. $23.95.
There is something about the death penalty that can make even the best scholars relax their usual standards. Maybe it is because the subject is so emotional, or maybe it is because the stakes are so high, but writers capable of sophisticated, nuanced arguments on other topics somehow lose that ability when it comes to capital punishment. Assertions that would be tested and found wanting in other contexts have a way of being uncritically accepted when they support one's view, while arguments on the other side tend to be rebutted with ad hominem attacks. The line between scholarship and politics is often blurry, but it is never blurrier than when the death penalty is involved.
It may be a bit unfair to William McFeely--but only a bit--to locate Proximity to Death in this tradition. He says in chapter 1 that he has not set out to write a history or sociology of the death penalty. Although McFeely is a distinguished historian, probably best known for his biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass, Proximity to Death is "simply a story of a few people living in one corner of the country" (p. 23). Those people are Stephen Bright and his colleagues at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, who represent indigent defendants facing the death penalty. Regardless of what one thinks about capital punishment, Bright et al. are genuine heroes, doing top-quality work on the most difficult cases for the least popular clients for almost no money. As he explains in chapter 2, McFeely met them when Bright asked him to be an expert witness in one of the cases, and McFeely was so taken with the lawyers that he spent the next two years interviewing them and some of their clients. It is fortunate that as skilled a storyteller as McFeely has written a book that will introduce Bright and his colleagues to a general audience. Simply as a story, Proximity to Death is easily the best book about the work of death penalty lawyers.
Despite the first chapter's disclaimer, however, McFeely is not just telling a story. Interspersed with the narrative are sections that are explicitly historical and sociological, in which McFeely tries to set his story in a wider context. Readers of this journal are likely to find these sections the weakest parts of the [End Page 460] book. The discussion of the history of capital punishment in chapter 3 contains much that is simply wrong. Supporters of capital punishment in the late eighteenth century were not just "Orthodox Christians on the one hand and rifle-toting frontiersmen on the other" (p. 44), but rather the vast majority of the population. Michigan was the first American state to abolish capital punishment but not the first jurisdiction in the world (p. 44); that was Tuscany, several decades earlier. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century centralization of authority to conduct executions, from county governments to state governments, was not a way to "curb the excesses of local hanging judges responding to local demands for vengeance" (p. 45). The same local judges and juries were still doing the sentencing, under the same law and with the same supervision as before. Centralization was intended as (and most likely was) a humane measure, to make executions less painful, by transferring them from inexperienced local sheriffs to trained prison employees. Thomas Edison did not advocate the electric chair in order to promote electricity (p. 45), but rather to promote a specific kind of electricity--the alternating current that ran the electrical systems sold by George Westinghouse, Edison's competitor. (Edison's systems used direct current, and he hoped that the unfavorable publicity associated with the electric chair would cause customers to reject alternating current.) McFeely uses without qualification the published execution rate statistics compiled by Watt Espy (p. 46), without noting that the published figures...