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The majority of people in the United States favor the death penalty for first-degree capital murder. Psychologist Michael Dow Burkhead is opposed. His book, A Life for a Life, rests heavily on the words of former Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who wrote that if Americans knew how the death penalty actually was applied, the problem of discriminatory sentencing, and the weak evidence that it has a deterrent effect, they would view capital punishment as immoral and unconstitutional. Throughout the book, Burkhead makes his points by citing data from the Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. He also quotes liberally from the work of social scientists, giving us a theological and secular analysis that encompasses several hundred years. At a lean 142 pages, the book presents a balanced account of death penalty advocacy and opposition, notwithstanding the author's commitment to the latter.
The historical context of the death penalty begins with the first execution in the American colonies in 1608. Burkhead traces the evolution of capital punishment implementation over the preceding 400 years, concluding that there has always been a "regionalization of the death penalty in practice." By this he means that execution rates have consistently been more prevalent in southern states. He posits that the discrepancy in statistics among regions can be explained by the legacy of slavery, history of lynching, inadequate defense counsel representation, and higher incidence of murder in southern regions. The data Burkhead presents and reviews are indeed compelling although not everyone will agree with his interpretation.
Having described the history behind the death penalty, Burkhead examines several core questions. On the topic of whether execution qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment, he concludes that there is no conclusive opinion. However as to the question, "Is the death penalty handed out in a discriminatory manner,?" the author answers with a resounding, "Yes." Burkhead is similarly definitive in his answers to two other questions: "No," capital trials are not fair trails because "the process at nearly every point drives the jury toward the decision of death," and, "No," the preponderance of evidence shows that the death penalty does not deter murder.
Another key question the book raises about capital punishment is whether innocent people are put to death? Burkhead's analysis is that certainly, innocent people have been sentenced but, "we have not a single clearly convincing case in which an innocent person was actually executed, even though innocent persons have been exonerated while on death row." He offers a penetrating explanation for these conclusions: on one hand, our capital punishment system has good error detection but also, "once a person is executed, interest in establishing his innocence quickly dissipates." As safeguards against putting an innocent person to death, Burkhead discusses recent developments in DNA exoneration of convicted inmates and invoking mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.
One of the author's beliefs is that a person's opinion about the death penalty depends on how the question is posed. For example, a recent Gallup Poll survey reported that respondents had less support for capital punishment when the alternative choice was a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He also asks the reader to use dispassionate logic when considering the following paradoxes: (1) if the death penalty is justified as retribution, then why is it made as painless as possible, (2) how can the death penalty deter murder and other heinous crimes when it is inflicted in private, and (3) can the death penalty really be effective when as recent statistics reveal, about 1% of people convicted of murder are executed? These are thought-provoking queries which Burkhead elaborates on to advance his thesis against the death penalty.
I recommend A Life for a Life to anyone who is interested in learning about the formation of death penalty governance in our country, the social-political forces that have shaped past and present debates, and the manner by which empirical evidence is used to sway one's argument. If you oppose the death penalty, the book will fortify your beliefs. My guess is that if you support the death penalty because you judge it as social justice and a way to battle crime, reading the book will not change your opinion. Whatever your views, perhaps the best endorsement for carefully digesting every page of this well crafted book is Burkhead's dedication: "To my sister, Sara Tyler Burkhead, who was murdered August 11, 1983, and who is still loved and missed." Here is an author and scholar who must be respected for challenging himself and us to search deeply when deciding the reasons for and against taking a life for a life.
© 2009 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 6 books and over 200 journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.
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