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May 7 2010 | UNITED STATES

USA

Two new publications on death penalty

 
printable version

The Economist

The death penalty - Theirs but to do and die - The deficiencies of the system

The Autobiography of an Execution. By David Dow. Twelve; 271 pages; $24.99. Buy from Amazon.com

Last Words of the Executed. By Robert Elder. University of Chicago Press; 304 pages; $22.50 and £14.50. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

AMERICA’S fondness for the death penalty is disconcerting—and to no one more than David Dow, whose job is to defend death-row inmates in the most kill-happy state, Texas. Mr Dow’s frank account, “The Autobiography of an Execution”, weaves tales from his often-futile efforts—in which stalling, rather than stopping, his clients’ execution is frequently the only feasible goal—with scenes from his own family life. “We planned the execution around our vacations,” he writes of one of his clients, Henry Quaker.

Quaker’s grim case forms the core of the book. The beneficiary of a life-insurance policy on his family, the jurors are told, he was arrested for shooting his wife, from whom he had recently separated, and two children. Mr Dow is unable to save Quaker, largely because the case was badly mishandled by his initial lawyer, a common predicament for death-row inmates. Mr Dow attends the execution. Of the roughly 100 people on death row he has represented over his career, Mr Dow believes seven were innocent. (To protect his clients’ confidentiality, Mr Dow not only altered names but mixed up the circumstances of many cases that he has worked on. So Quaker’s tale, along with everything else in the book, is a composite of true circumstances, he explains.)

Mr Dow is angry. “I used to support the death penalty. I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is,” he writes. His world is full of public defenders who fail to perform even the most basic duties in court, indifferent judges, cowardly public officials, and an absurdly rigid system which honours the letter of the rules over actual justice.

Mr Dow does not actually like many of his clients. And he points out some sorry truths of the American justice system. As in the Quaker case, Mr Dow generally gets to his clients too late, because the federal courts are loth to go back over the problematic trials of the state courts. His work is gruelling and awful—and then the client dies and the process starts all over again with somebody new.

Knowing something of the deficiencies of the American justice system is useful for leafing through “Last Words of the Executed”, the final statements of hundreds of Americans who have been condemned through the centuries. Robert Elder has organised his book according to the manner of death. There are chapters on hanging; the firing-squad (Utah is due to execute a prisoner in June this way—America’s first such execution since 1996); the gas chamber; the electric chair; and lethal injection (the most common method used, though it once took so long to find a beefy Ohio inmate’s vein that he was granted a break to go to the toilet).

The last words are remarkable for their remorse, humour, hatred, resignation, fear and bravado. “I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner,” a 19th-century Wyoming murderer told his hangman. Some rambled; others were concise. Several blamed the drink; others reasserted innocence, or (especially in recent years) railed against the death penalty. Some accepted their fate. “If I was y’all, I would have killed me. You know?” said a Texan, who had murdered his son’s former girlfriend and her sister, as he readied himself for lethal injection. America’s diverse heritage is stamped even onto its killers’ final moments.

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