BOOKS: Against the Death Penalty: International Initiatives and Implications

A new book, Against the Death Penalty: International Initiatives and Implications, features leading scholars on the death penalty and their analysis of both the promotion and demise of the punishment around the world. It considers the current efforts to restrict the death penalty within the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the African Commission, and the Commonwealth Caribbean. It also investigates perspectives and questions for retentionist countries with a focus on the United States, China, Korea, and Taiwan.  Among the authors in this compendium are Roger Hood, William Schabas, Peter Hodgkinson, and DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter.

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BOOKS: Jesus on Death Row

Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and present faculty member at a conservative Christian law school in Texas, has writtenJesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment.

The book offers a comparison between the trial and execution of Jesus and a capital case conducted in the U.S. justice system. The use of paid informants, conflicting testimony of witnesses, and the denial of clemency in both Jesus’ case and in recent cases in the U.S. are cited as examples of existing parallels.

The book is scheduled for release in February 2009 and can be pre-ordered here.


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BOOKS: Streib's Death Penalty in a Nutshell

Elon University School of Law’s Professor Victor Streib has released a new edition of his book, Streib’s Death Penalty in a Nutshell. It covers both the substantive and the procedural law of the death penalty and begins with arguments for and against the death penalty and an explanation of its basic constitutional challenges and limitations. Professor Streib covers capital crimes and defenses, as well as trial level and post trial procedural issues. Other topics include race and gender bias, executing the innocent, and international and foreign law issues. This book, which serves both as supplemental reading for death penalty courses and as a concise, narrative explanation of death penalty law, is current as of July 2008. Copies of the book can be purchased here.

(V. Streib, "Streib's Death Penalty in a Nutshell," 3rd ed., 2008).  See also Books.



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BOOKS: Execution's Doorstep: True Stories of the Innocent and Near Damned

In her new book, Execution’s Doorstep: The True Stories of the Innocent and Near Damned, author Leslie Lytle provides a compelling narrative recounting the harrowing journeys of five innocent men who spent many years on death row. Through extensive research and interviews, Lytle has succeeded in revealing the deep pain and suffering that such injustice yields, putting a human face to the recurring problem of innocence on death row. The book explores all aspects of the cases, from the crime and the trials to the time spent on death row and the difficult struggle to adjust to life outside of a maximum security prison. Through the stories of these five men, Lytle provides readers with a penetrating look at America’s criminal justice and capital punishment systems, showing their fallibility.

Leslie Lytle is the Executive Director of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace. (Northeastern Univ. Press 2008). To date, 130 men and women have been exonerated from death row since 1973. See Innocence and Books.

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BOOKS: Abolition, One Man's Battle Against the Death Penalty

A compelling narrative of the legal and political fight to end the death penalty in France has just been released in an English translation. Abolition: One Man’s Battle Against the Death Penalty is authored by Robert Badinter, probably the single person most responsible for abolishing the death penalty in France. He begins his story in 1972 when one of his clients was guillotined in a case he felt was unjust. Upon dedicating his career to abolishing the death penalty, he agreed to represent any convict facing capital punishment, and he succeeded in having six death sentences overturned. Readers follow Badinter’s journey from writing the legislation to ban the death penalty to the push through the National Assembly and Senate. His narrative moves from courtroom experiences to the political front throughout this memoir. Badinter currently sits in the French Senate and is one of the founders of the World Congress Against the Death Penalty.

The new edition can be purchased at (R. Badinter, Abolition: One man’s battle against the death penalty, Northeastern University Press, 2008; translated by Jeremy Mercer). See Books.

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BOOKS: Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts by Alan Rogers explores the unique history of the capital punishment in Massachusetts. Rogers chronicles the more than 300 years that Massachusetts executed men and women in the state through to the eventual abolition of the punishment in 1984. The historical approach recounts the Puritans’ views on capital punishment in the 1700’s, the 1830’s House vote that almost abolished the death penalty, and the cases that were the turning point for the state.

A sample of reviews of this book:

“The range and depth of coverage are impressive…The twelve chapters address key aspects of jurisprudence, such as defendant rights, the insanity issue, the right to an attorney, criminal discovery, confession, and the selection of an impartial jury…This is masterful scholarship on an immensely important subject.” Lawrence Goodheart, author of Mad Yankees.

"This book is a perfect model for any future death penalty historian- one can only hope that Rogers’ successors will do for a state such as Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio what he has done for Massachusetts.” Hugo Bedeau, author of The Death Penalty in America.

Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2008) can be purchased here. See also Books.

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BOOKS: The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective

The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective by Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle is the Fourth Edition of a text that highlights the latest developments in the death penalty around the world. Roger Hood utilizes his experience as a consultant to the United Nations' annual survey of capital punishment in compiling a wide range of information from non-governmental organizations and academic literature. The book explores both the advances in legal challenges to the death penalty and the reduction in executions, while noting the continued existence of human rights abuses. Problems include unfair trails, police abuse, painful forms of execution, and excessive periods of time spent in inhumane conditions on death row. The authors explore the latest issues related to capital punishment such as deterrence, arbitrariness, and what influence victims' families should have in sentencing.

A sample of reviews of earlier editions of this book:

"brings an international human rights perspective to the discussion ... its wordwide perspective brings another dimension and greater depth to the arguments surrounding the return of executions to America.'' -Leigh B. Bienen, The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

"excellent study ... is likely to remain for some time the scholarly authority that complements the regular and continuing publications of Amnesty International and other campaigning organizations." -Andrew Rutherford, University of Southampton, British Journal of Criminology.

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NEW VOICES: "How New Jersey Abolished the Death Penalty"

In 1982, as a second term Assemblyman, Raymond Lesniak voted to reinstate the death penalty in New Jersey. In December 2007, New Jersey voted to abolish the death penalty, becoming the first state in 40 years to accomplish this. Senator Lesniak was one of the sponsors and legislative leaders of the abolition bill. He has written a new book: "The Road to Abolition: How New Jersey Abolished the Death Penatly."

In commenting on the book, Senator Lesniak said, "Why do I care so much about the murderers on death row who, except for the innocent ones, committed the most heinous acts of murder imaginable? I don't. I'm not as enlightened as Sister Helen Prejean. But I do care about the damage that holding on to anger, resentment and the need for vengeance does to us as a society and as human beings."

For more information about the book, see The Road to Justice and Peace. Posted May 10, 2008.

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Death Penalty / Consistent Life Ethic Book Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War edited by Rachel M. MacNair and Stephen Zunes published by Praeger / Greenwood  

Consistently Opposing Killing is the most complete compilation to date of writings by leading scholars and activists for peace and justice who embrace the consistent life ethic. Recognizing that just as the various manifestations of violence are inter-connected, so must be the means to address them, more than a dozen contributors explore how violence consistently fails as a solution to society’s problems, and how violence and injustice can only be effectively challenged through nonviolent means.  
Endorsement From Sister Helen Prejean,
Author of Dead Man Walking:
“The societal wounds of racism, poverty, and a penchant for using violence to address problems are intimately connected to the death penalty, to war, to the killing of the old and demented, and to the killing of children, unborn and born. If more people were familiar with the consistent life ethic, as expounded in this book, then the voice of all unseen vulnerable people would be better heard.”

Endorsement From Dr. Alveda King, Director of African American Outreach for Gospel of Life; and niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The authors consistently and rationally support the position of opposition to murder in a society where wrong may seem right, to the detriment of life, liberty and justice for all. This is a recommended read for serious thinkers and for all seeking truth.”   For more information, table of contents and ordering information:
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Exploring the complexities of death penalty, redemption By Karen Campbell
Boston Globe
April 3, 2008

Book Review: Change of Heart
By Jodi Picoult
Atria, 447 pp., $26.95

Novels by the prolific Jodi Picoult often have a provocative "ripped from the headlines" intensity, from the euthanasia issue of "Mercy" to the mass school killings in last year's "Nineteen Minutes." But with her latest novel, "Change of Heart," Picoult creates her own sensational controversy that sits uneasily on the fault line of religion in America, which she believes has become one of the country's most divisive. "Change of Heart" unflinchingly explores the complexities and emotions of the death penalty.

The story takes place primarily on death row, where a poor, uneducated young handyman awaits execution for the murder of a policeman and his daughter. As he contemplates his past and his fate, Shay Bourne, who has been marginalized for most of his life, comes to believe that the only way he can redeem his troubled existence is to donate his heart after his execution. However, there are two major stumbling blocks. The first is that the state of New Hampshire's legal form of execution is lethal injection, which renders the heart unusable for transplant. The second is that Shay has picked a special recipient for his heart - the sister of the girl he is accused of killing - and the desperately ill 11-year-old Claire wants nothing to do with it.

Into this complicated setup arrive Maggie, Shay's lawyer, and Michael, one of the jurors who reluctantly voted to convict Shay 11 years earlier. Now a somewhat conflicted priest, Father Michael finds himself in the role of the condemned man's spiritual adviser. "Ever since I had taken my vows and asked God to help me offset what I had done to one man with what I might yet be able to do for others - I knew this would happen one day. I knew I'd wind up face-to-face with Shay Bourne." However, Shay doesn't recognize Michael, who keeps silent not to protect himself from Shay's anger but to facilitate the man's redemption.

Like "Nineteen Minutes," "Change of Heart" unfolds through the first-person narratives of those involved, offering a variety of perspectives. In addition to Shay's allies, there are Lucius, the artist with AIDS convicted of killing his lover in a fit of passion, and June Nealon, the still-grieving widow and mother of Claire. This gives the narrative richness and texture, but it can also feel a little formulaic after a while. The one person whose inner world we never plumb is Shay himself; except for moments of recounted dialogue, his story is told through other voices.

While "Change of Heart" is a compelling page-turner, it is more than just a suspenseful countdown to an execution. The disturbing, thought-provoking questions Picoult poses about capital punishment, the ethics of organ donation, and the moral dilemma of telling the truth at all costs go well beyond the issue of whether Shay will be allowed to die in a way that preserves his heart and whether Claire will accept it as her own.

Picoult also plants seeds of mysticism and miracles, as Shay begins to quote obscure gospels and those in his cell block experience unexplained instances of healing. This begins to attract fervent attention from people on the outside, who wonder if Shay is the Messiah. Is he a sinner or a saint? While intriguing, the overlay is a bit distracting, and this plot element, as well as an improbably facile romance between the self-denigrating Maggie and Claire's doctor, lends "Change of Heart" the kind of leavening that says "commercial appeal." But thankfully, its literary heart beats strong; Picoult is a skilled wordsmith, and she beautifully creates situations that not only provoke the mind but touch the flawed souls in all of us.

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.
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