NEW BOOK — Marc Bookman’s A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays

“The more people know about how the system of capital punishment really works, the less support they will have for that policy,” says Marc Bookman, the author of A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays. Bookman’s critically acclaimed collection of essays — described by Publishers Weekly as “a cogent and harrowing primer on what’s wrong with capital punishment” — channels his decades of capital litigation experience into 12 stories that exemplify the systemic failings of the death penalty, from racial bias and an incapacity to come to grips with mental illness to bad lawyering, bad judging, and an epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct.

Bookman is the co-founder of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation (ACCR), a non-profit death penalty resource center. Prior to founding ACCR in 2010, he was a fixture in the homicide unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, representing defendants who faced the death penalty. In his time in the homicide unit, the Defender Association was limited to handling 20% of the city’s murder cases. Ninety men and women went to death row from Philadelphia during that period, but not one Defender Association client was sentenced to death.

While A Descending Spiral addresses the constellation of issues that caused Philadelphia to be an outlier in its pursuit of the death penalty, the collective message of his stories, gathered from jurisdictions across the country, is that the problems are not idiosyncratic; they are endemic. As Kirkus Reviews writes, “Bookman creates a clear, comprehensive portrait of a broken system, and the cases he highlights make for fascinating reading.”

Anthony Amsterdam, whose Supreme Court argument in Furman v. Georgia led the Court to strike down all existing death-penalty statutes in 1972, said that A Descending Spiral “achieves a dispassion that is more incisive and compelling than any overt advocacy.” “In these remarkable essays,” Amsterdam writes, Bookman’s “gift for exquisite irony and his spare, trenchant prose are the perfect tools for exposing the injustices of a legal system that kills haphazardly.”

When Bookman reflects on the factors that made Philadelphia a symbol of death-penalty excess, he pointed to the combination of the city’s history of overzealous prosecutors and its failure to adequately fund defense representation. “The death penalty in Philadelphia has always been kind of a myth, kind of a way for politicians to look like they were being tough on crime,” he said. “And here’s the kicker: Over an 11-year period, the public defender’s office representation saved the taxpayers more than $200 million in excessive incarceration costs. But still, to this day, the City of Philadelphia only gives the defender’s office 20 percent of the cases. They are penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Bookman points to Virginia’s recent abolition of the death penalty as evidence of the impact of strong representation. “Virginia just got rid of the death penalty, and Virginia historically executed more people than any other state in the country, including Texas. But in 2004, Virginia decided to fund regional capital defender offices — they brought in experienced death-penalty lawyers to handle capital cases, who basically shut down the death penalty in Virginia to the point where there were no death sentences there over the last decade. Pennsylvania is not putting one red cent into that kind of representation. And so we’re spending huge amounts of money [on litigating capital appeals].”

There is no single thing that goes wrong in death-penalty cases, Bookman notes, which increased the complexity of crafting the essays in the book. In an interview with The Crime Report, he explains, “I would start out writing an essay about a bad lawyer, but the essay would also quickly expose racism, or a prosecutor who hides evidence, or the courts that purposely overlook a problem with the case. And that’s the amazing thing: any capital punishment case almost never has just one problem. In these cases, all of the problems tend to coalesce.”

He also stressed the important role of the prosecutor, and the need for accountability for those who withhold evidence or engage in other misconduct. “The book describes a number of circumstances where prosecutors intentionally hid evidence or intentionally didn’t turn over exculpatory evidence. And if we catch someone intentionally hiding evidence, and we prosecute that person for obstruction of justice, I guarantee you fewer prosecutors are going to hide evidence. How do we deter theft? We prosecute it. How do we deter any crime? We prosecute it.”

Bookman believes that as the public becomes more informed the about the realities of capital punishment, the likelihood of its abolition increases. “I’m hopeful because I can look at the data and see that sentences are going down and executions are going down. And the explanation for that is the more people know, the less they are enamored of capital punishment. The more we know that lawyers screw up, that people falsely confess, that juries make mistakes, that race discrimination has permeated our justice system, the more all those things come into the public’s view and the less enamored they become.”


Marc Bookman, A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays, The New Press, May 2021; Isidoro Rodriguez, Why the Death Penalty Lingers On in America, The Crime Report, May 26, 2021; Robert Huber, Meet the Philly Lawyer on a Mission to End the Death Penalty, Philadelphia Magazine, May 29, 2021; Samantha Melamed, This Philly lawyer works to emp­ty death row. His new book reveals an absurd, bro­ken sys­tem., Philadelphia Inquirer, May 18, 2021; Cathy Corman, BOOK REVIEW: A Descending Spiral of Violence and Injustice, Provincetown Independent, June 23, 2021; Book Review, DESCENDING SPIRAL: EXPOSING THE DEATH PENALTY IN 12 ESSAYS, Kirkus Reviews, May 2021; Book Review, A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays, Publishers Weekly, May 2021.