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For readers looking for general background information on the death penalty--primarily with respect to the United States--this book is a good choice. For readers trying to figure out whether the death penalty should be fixed or scrapped, this book falls short.
For example, a chapter on methods of execution is devoted almost entirely to detailing the problems with the methods that we have used rather than to exploring whether there are better alternatives. (pp. 125-53). Using a single drug to both put the person to sleep and to kill the person--as pets are euthanized--is mentioned, but the discussion of this option is so unclear (pp. 148-49) that one leaves the chapter suspecting, but not entirely sure, that there is a method of killing people that does not seem too awful.
Similarly, another chapter discusses how the death penalty is practiced in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. (pp. 311-23). It also mentions that Japan has the death penalty (p. 312) but does not say a word about how the death penalty is practiced in Japan. The focus on the countries that do the most executing is appropriate in a book designed to educate people about the death penalty in general terms. But readers interested in whether we could fix some of the problems with our implementation of the death penalty are going to have a lot more curiosity about the death penalty as practiced in Japan than about the death penalty as practiced in North Korea.
The biggest omission in the book from the perspective of giving people the information they need to make up their minds is the absence of almost any discussion of the alternative--viz., a life sentence without the possibility of parole. There is extremely little discussion in the book about the conditions in which such prisoners are kept, what is done to them if they do not behave, or what life is like for those who have to guard them or share a cell or cafeteria with them. In the context of discussing the cost of the death penalty, the book discusses the case of Brian Richardson, who was serving a life sentence for a series of armed robberies when he murdered his cellmate in 2007. (pp. 284-85). The authors bemoan the fact that because the death penalty was sought, $3.5 million was spent on prosecuting him, and the result was a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which the authors say is the same sentence he was already serving. They say that the prosecutors defended their decision to seek the death penalty based on Richardson’s previous prison violence, which included splashing bleach in a guard’s face and stabbing other inmates, and because they were convinced he would kill again. It seems astonishing that anyone would bemoan that the prosecutors sought the death penalty rather than that Richardson did not receive it. What happened to him (or his next cellmate) after he got zero punishment for this murder?
The same kind of issue is brought to mind when the 1977 case of Coker v. Georgia is discussed. (pp. 62-63). Ehrlich Coker was serving several life sentences for the rape and murder of two teenagers. He escaped and raped another woman at knifepoint. He got the death penalty for that rape, but the Supreme Court, in all its wisdom, decided it was “grossly disproportionate and excessive” to give a death sentence for rape even in the context of a rapist who had already been convicted of two murders and had escaped from prison.
The authors say that the theory of specific deterrence, i.e., that punishment is justified on the basis of its effect on the future behavior of the individual punished, is not relevant to the topic of capital punishment because once a person is killed, they cannot commit another crime. (p. 35). By thus standing logic on its head, they decline to address one of the strongest arguments in favor of capital punishment--viz., it prevents the individual who is executed from committing another offense.
If one ranks possible punishments from least to most barbaric, the death penalty implemented in some kind of sane manner is far from the bottom of the list. If a society draws the line above capital punishment, it is not clear how people who are already suffering the most barbaric punishment the society is willing to impose are supposed to be deterred from committing further offenses. If a society draws the line at capital punishment, that problem is solved.
The issue of how prisoners who will never be released should be treated is not an easy one. If they are forced to live in a cage where they are at a high risk of physical or sexual assault from other prisoners or guards, that may be more barbaric than the death penalty. If they are given access to absolutely nothing to do, that also seems more barbaric than execution. The book mentions that some prisoners have access to cable television (p. 285), which is a luxury many people live without. Free room, board, and healthcare is more than our government provides to those who are not incarcerated. So what conditions are suggested that are less barbaric than the death penalty but do not amount to the government providing more to convicted killers than to the law-abiding?
This book does a good job of canvassing problems with the death penalty but does not provide either proposals for improving it or an explanation of how life without the possibility of parole can function as a satisfactory alternative. Perhaps authors opposed to the death penalty cannot be expected to engage the issue of how it might be improved, but people who prefer life sentences without the possibility of parole need to address the issues of how such inmates are to be treated in prison, what should happen to them if they commit additional crimes, and what should happen to them if they just won’t behave.
© 2016 Gail Merten
Gail Merten has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arizona and a J.D. from Arizona State University. She works as an attorney in Washington, D.C., and flip-flops on the issue of capital punishment.
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