BOOKS: Death Penalty Critiques

'The Future of America's Death Penalty' book jacketThe Future of America's Death Penalty, edited by Charles S. Lanier, William J. Bowers, James R. Acker, is a new book comprised of original chapters authored by nationally distinguished scholars.  It is an ambitious effort to identify the most critical issues confronting the future of capital punishment in the United States and the steps that must be taken to gather and analyze the information that will be necessary for informed policy judgments. Contributors articulate the most pressing issues of administration, litigation, legislation, and executive action confronting the future of capital punishment, and identify research strategies designed to supply answers to those questions. 

Among the authors included in this work are David Baldus, Catherine Grosso, Hugo Bedau, John Blume, Sheri Lynn Johnson, William Bowers, Richard Dieter, Jeffrey Fagan, Valerie West, Deborah Fleischaker, Jonathan Gradess, Robert Johnson, Jon Sorensen, and Margaret Vandiver, with a Foreward by Ronald Tabak.

(The Future of America's Death Penalty: An Agenda for the Next Generation of Capital Punishment Research, edited by Charles S. Lanier, William J. Bowers, James R. Acker, Carolina Academic Press 2009).

Life and Death Matters: Seeking the Truth About Capital Punishment is a new book that  documents author Robert Baldwin’s personal journey in confronting racism and the death penalty in the Deep South.  Baldwin shares his evolution in a conversational, first-person style with a declared faith perspective.  Written for people of all beliefs and backgrounds, he focuses on the myths and misconceptions about prisons and the death penalty discovered through his personal experiences. 

Baldwin began his career as a medical doctor and now devotes his time to public service work in prison ministry and to helping children born deaf and hard of hearing.


 (R. Baldwin, "Life and Death Matters," New South Books, 2009).

In True Stories of False Confessions, editors Rob Warden and Steven Drizin present articles about some of the key accounts of false confessions in the U.S. justice system written by more than forty authors, including Alex Kotlowitz and John Grisham.  The cases are grouped into categories such as brainwashing, inference, fabrication, and mental fragility. This refutes the perception that false confessions represent individual tragedies rather than a systemic flaw in the justice system. The editors make recommendations for policy changes that would reduce false confessions.


(R. Warren & S. Drizin, editors, "True Stories of False Confessions," Northwestern University Press, 2009).


In the book, A Life for a Life: The American Debate Over the Death Penalty, author Michael Dow Burkhead, a psychologist who has worked with criminal offenders for 25 years, explores the various trends in public opinion that influence crime prevention efforts, create public policy, and reform criminal law. He examines eight core issues about the use of executions: cruel and unusual punishment, discrimination, deterrence, due process, culpability, scripture, innocence, and justice.  The book provides a brief history of capital punishment in the United States from the earliest known execution in1608 to the present time. Additional topics include the regionalization of capital punishment sentences, the spiritual and scriptural debate over the death penalty, the role of DNA evidence in modern death sentences, and the ongoing effects recent court rulings.  The appendix includes recent state commission reports on the death penalty from Maryland, California, New Jersey, and Tennessee.

(Posted Aug.18, 2009, M. Burkhead, A Life for a Life: The American Debate Over the Death Penalty, McFarland & Co. 2009)
  • Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and present faculty member at a conservative Christian law school in Texas, has written Jesus 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.
n 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.

  • Author Gilbert King, in his forthcoming book The Execution of Willie Francis, details the story of a young African-American man who endured the electric chair twice before being executed for the murder of a white man in Louisiana.  In 1946, an all-white jury convicted Francis, who was 17, and sentenced him to death. The first attempt to execute him by electrocution did not work, and Francis was returned to his death row cell where he remained for almost another year while the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether a second electrocution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Noted death penalty author and activist Sister Helen Prejean describes The Execution of Willie Francis as “profound.” She writes,

Gilbert King transforms abstract arguments over Louisiana's right to re-execute a condemned youth into a profound story of flesh and blood. His impassioned portrait of the unlikely bond between two young Catholics, Willie Francis and his undaunted lawyer, Bertrand DeBlanc, is more than a heartwarming affirmation of love and humanity. It's a vitally important story and if you want to better understand America's troubling legacy of capital punishment, read this book.

The Execution of Willie Francis will be released March 31, 2008 and comes at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of lethal injection practices in Baze v. Rees.
(The Execution of Willie Francis, by Gilbert King, Basic Books 2008). See Books and Methods of Execution.  Posted February 22, 2008.

  •  In The Top Ten Death Penalty Myths, professors Rudolph J. Gerber and John M. Johnson explore ten arguments used to support the death penalty and provide readers with current research and studies challenging these arguments. The authors show how "political and community leaders have used myth and emotional appeals to misrepresent the facts about capital executions.” Each chapter begins with a statement in support of the death penalty based on themes such as deterrence, victims and their families, and costs, and then analyzes the original statement, offering research to counter it.
(The Top Ten Death Penalty Myths: The Politics of Crime Control by Rudolph J. Gerber and John M. Johnson (Praeger Publishing 2007)).  Prof. Gerber is a former judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals. See also Books.
  • In his new book, "The Big Eddy Club: The Stocking Stranglings and Southern Justice," author David Rose examines issues of race and the death penalty. The book relates the story of Carlton Gary, who was convicted of capital murder in 1986 and remains on Georgia's death row for the rape and murder of several elderly women in Columbus, Georgia. Rose, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, links Gary's conviction to a history of bias in Columbus and the South. "The Big Eddy Club" details the connections between past and present Southern justice and uses these links to further examine the broader issues of race, corruption, and the criminal justice system. Rose maintains that racism in Columbus may have resulted in an unfair trial for Gary. His investigation of the case found that many of the community's prominent judges and attorneys, as well as most of the victims, were frequenters of the Big Eddy Club, an exclusive all-white club in Columbus. He also reveals a connection between the Gary case and a 1912 lynching of a black man who had been tried for murder and acquitted. Rose found that the trial judge first assigned to Gary's case in 1984 was the son of the mob leader who led the eventual lynching.
    (The New Press, 2007; posted June 19, 2007).
  • Litigating in the Shadow of Death by the late Welsh White is an absorbing account of the ways in which defense attorneys represent capital defendants. The author brings to light the paramount role these attorneys have played in shaping the modern system of capital punishment, showing how highly skilled defense lawyers are sometimes able to avoid death sentences for their clients even in very difficult cases. In other cases, attorneys have demonstrated to the public that some innocent defendants are sentenced to death. Professor White's descriptions of cases provide an invaluable guide for lawyers planning to represent capital defendants, as well as students trying to understand our criminal justice system. His detailed, journalistic accounts of recent death penalty trials will also appeal to lay readers and activists interested in learning more about the death penalty. The late Welsh S. White was the Bessie McKee Walthour Endowed Chair and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh. (University of Michigan Press, 2006).
  • A May 2006 conference held at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School examined new research, legal defense, and public response to the issue of race and the death penalty. The conference, "From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: A National Conference on Race and the Death Penalty," featured a number of national academic and legal experts including Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, Charles Ogletree, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, George Kendall, Stephen Bright, Andrea Lyon and Hugo Bedau. During the conference, sessions explored the connections between America's racial politics and the practice of capital punishment, as well as the ways in which the nation's focus on terrorism may be further eroding protections for the accused. The conference coincided with the release of a new book, "From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State," co-edited by Professors Charles Ogletree and Austin Sarat. This book is available on Amazon for twenty-two dollars. To learn more about this event, see the Conference's Web site. For more information regarding race and the death penalty see Race and Studies
  • "Scott Sundby's new book, "A Life and Death Decision: A Jury Weighs the Death Penalty" is an impartial look at capital jury deliberations through the examination of data collected by the Capital Jury Project and other studies of group decision-making. Drawing on the Capital Jury Project's interviews with more than 1,000 jurors from across the country who had taken part in death penalty cases, the book addresses crucial issues such as jury instructions, jury room setup, and voir dire procedures. While focusing on a single case, Sundby also sheds light on broader issues, including the roles of race, class, and gender in the justice system. Sundby is a professor of law at Washington and Lee University. He has worked on both the prosecution and defense sides in a variety of criminal cases, and has testified as an expert witness on the death penalty and other legal issues. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  • "The Dreams of Ada" by Robert Mayer tells a story strikingly similar to that recounted by John Grisham in "The Innocent Man." Each book involves the murder of a young woman from Ada, Oklahoma in the early 1980s. In both cases, there are two defendants whose convictions rely on little probative evidence but involve "confessions" that emerged from a dream. Both prosecutions were led by Bill Peterson and both involved the same jail-house informant. The defendants in Mayer's book, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, were both sentenced to death, as was Ron Williamson in Grisham's book. Williamson and his co-defendant were eventually freed when DNA evidence excluded them from the crime scene. Ward and Fontenot remain in prison for life, after their death sentences were overturned. In their case, there was no DNA evidence to provide a more definitive answer. At the time of their trial, no body had even been discovered. Both Mayer and Grisham believe that Ward and Fontenot were victims of a complete miscarriage of justice (R. Mayer, "The Dreams of Ada," Doubleday Broadway 1987, with new Afterword 2006).
  • Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty, a new book by Judith W. Kay, uses the personal experiences of both crime victims' families and those on death row to examine America's beliefs about crime and punishment. Noting that researchers have raised questions about the execution of innocent people, racial bias in sentencing, and capital punishment's failure to act as a deterrent, Kay asks why Americans still support the death penalty. She uses interviews with those most closely impacted by violent crime and capital punishment to examine whether punishment corrects bad behavior, suffering pays for wrong deeds, and if the victims' desire for revenge is natural and inevitable. Kay is an associate professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound. ("Murdering Myths: The Story Behind the Death Penalty," Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., June 2005). See Books. See also, Victims.
  • In his book, Death by Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System, Craig Haney argues that capital punishment, and particularly the events that lead to death sentencing itself, are maintained through a system that distances and disengages people from the true nature of the task. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, relies on his own research and that other of other scientists in approaching the question, "How can normal, moral people participate in a process designed to take the life of another?" The book cites three key factors that skew the justice system to facilitate death sentences: a jury selection process that favors those who are more likely to support capital punishment and to convict defendants, complicated sentencing instructions that jurors do not understand, and cultural and media myths about crime. "The flaws that riddle the system combine and operate in tandem. They help enable people to participate in behavior--actions designed to take the life of another person--that many of them otherwise would reject or resist," Haney concludes. In "Death by Design," Haney recommends a series of extensive reforms could improve the fairness of capital trials. His suggested changes include encouraging education about capital punishment and alternative sentences such as life without parole, working with journalists to provide a more accurate and balanced picture of the real caues of violence in society, strengthening the requirement that attorneys fully and completely investigate and present to jurors the social history of defendants during the sentencing process, and revising jury instructions to improve their understanding of mitigation. (Oxford University Press, 2005) See Books and Sentencing. See also DPIC's report "Blind Justice: Juries Deciding Life and Death With Only Half the Truth."
  • Executed on a Technicality: Lethal Injustice on America's Death Row, by Professor David Dow, to be released in April 2005, is a behind-the-scenes look at the death penalty through the lens of an attorney who formerly supported capital punishment. Dow, who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center and founded the Texas Innocence Network, provides case histories illustrating serious flaws in the death penalty system. He uses these cases to guide readers through a web of coerced confessions, incompetent representation, racist juries, and unfair judges, all of which he believes contribute to the arbitrariness of capital punishment. In many cases, obscure technicalities in the law prevented courts and juries from hearing evidence that would have prevented an execution or a death sentence. Dow relates the case of one man who was executed because the jury never heard from two eyewitnesses who swore he was not the murderer. In another case, a man was allowed to represent himself despite the fact that his mental imbalance - which resulted in attempts to issue a subpoena to Jesus Christ and to dressing as a cowboy during his trial - was obvious. (Beacon Press, 2005). See Resources.
  • In his new book "Jurors' Stories of Death: How America's Death Penalty Invests in Inequality," author Benjamin Fleury-Steiner draws on real-life accounts of white and black jurors in capital trials to discuss the effect of race on the sentencing process. Through his survey of the jurors' experiences, he reveals that race is often a factor in sentencing and that the U.S. justice system can foster an "us versus them" mentality among jurors serving in capital trials. Fleury-Steiner finds that the the jurors, who frequently view themselves as more law abiding and moral than the individual on trial, can have difficulty looking beyond that mindset as they examine complex mitigating evidence in determining the fate of often marginalized defendants. The book concludes that ending the death penalty is a crucial step toward eliminating the racism and classism that currently taints social relations in the U.S. Noted death penalty attorney Bryan Stevenson of Alabama remarked, "This illuminating and insightful examination of jury deliberations makes a terrific contribution to the study of capital punishment. Fleury-Steiner's synthesis of sociological, legal and theoretical concepts with vivid juror narratives and statistical data, thoughtfully animates and details how race and class consciousness continue to shape America's death penalty." (University of Michigan Press, 2004). See Race.
  • In "No Justice: No Victory - The Death Penalty in Texas," author Susan Lee Campbell Solar examines capital punishment in Texas through a political lens and with a concentration on cases and anecdotes that illustrate the systemic flaws she uncovered during her research. The book, completed by friends and family of the author after she died unexpectedly, features interviews with attorneys, judges and law professors, as well as with those on death row, their family members, and families of murder victims. She closely examines the cases of Gary Graham and Odell Barnes, Jr., who were executed despite strong evidence of innocence. She also reviews the case of Larry Robison, who was executed despite the fact that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was repeatedly turned away from mental health facilities because he wasn't considered violent. A crime victim herself, Solar used her research to examine the post civil war history of capital punishment in Texas and how this flawed system has been used by politicians for political gain. (Plain View Press, 2004)
  • "Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?," a book edited by Hugo Bedau and Paul Cassell, brings together judges, lawyers, prosecutors and philosophers to debate the death penalty in a spirit of open inquiry and exchange. The book discusses issues such as deterrence, innocence, life in prison without parole, and race. In addition to the editors, those who have chapters in the book include: Judge Alex Kozinski, Stephen Bright, Joshua Marquis, Bryan Stevenson, Professor Louis Pojman and former Governor George Ryan. (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • Kiss of Death: America's Love Affair with the Death Penalty Attorney John Bessler presents arguments against capital punishment based on his work as a pro bono attorney for death row inmates in Texas. Woven into Bessler's personal account is an examination of U.S. capital punishment practices in contrast to the absence of the death penalty in other nations. The book also addresses the toll executions take on those who participate in the process. (Northeastern University Press, 2003)

  • Ultimate Punishment In his latest book, "Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty," attorney and author Scott Turow provides a detailed look at his personal journey with the death penalty issue from his days as a federal prosecutor to his more recent service as a member of the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment. In addition to Turow's first-hand account, the book analyzes the potential reasons for and against the death penalty, discusses its impact on victims' families and politicians, and tells "the stories behind the statistics." (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)
  • "The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment" is a new book by Franklin E. Zimring, professor and Director of the Justice Research Program at the University of California, Berkeley. The book explores how American values have helped to shape the nation's death penalty debate. Zimring examines the connection between lynchings and the death penalty, and why the United States and its international allies have taken different paths regarding this issue. (Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • "The Death Game: Capital Punishment and the Luck of the Draw," by Mike Gray uses a series of death penalty cases from across the nation, to examine issues of innocence, police brutality, pressures on prosecutors and judges seeking career advancement, and the questionable accuracy of eyewitness accounts. (Common Courage Press, 2003)
  • "America's Death Penalty: Beyond Repair?" examines capital punishment in the U.S. since 1976 through a variety of scholarly essays that look at critical issues such as innocence, race, arbitrariness, and international human rights law. Reknown death penalty expert and law professor Tony Amsterdam notes, "In these essays, some of our most knowledgeable students of capital punishment take a hard, no-nonsense look at how it actually operates and what drives America's passionate refusal either to come to peace with the death penalty or give it up. Vital reading for whoever would understand why it can function only fitfully, peevishly and perversely." Edited by Professor Stephen P. Garvey of Cornell Law School, the book contains contributions from Garvey, Ken Armstrong, John H. Blume, Theodore Eisenberg, Phoebe C. Ellsworth, Samuel R. Gross, Sheri Lynn Johnson, Steve Mills, William A. Schabas, Larry Yackle, and Franklin E. Zimring. (Duke University Press, 2003)
  • "Deathwork: Defending the Condemned" - This new book by Michael Mello provides a behind-the-scenes look at the life and work of a death row lawyer and his clients. Mello, a law professor who represented many death row inmates, examines issues such as the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally ill, wrongfully convicted death row inmates, and inadequate defense. (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)
  • "When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition." This new book by Austin Sarat considers what the death penalty does to us as a society, rather than what it does for us. (Princeton University Press, 2001)
  • "Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions." Authors Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell provide a powerful analysis of the status of the death penalty in the U.S. today, including psychological insights and pieces of history not found in most other sources. They contend that, despite cases like Timothy McVeigh's, the death penalty is slowly losing its support in America and will be abolished. (William Morrow, 2000)
  • Just Revenge: Costs and Consequences of the Death Penalty by Mark Costanzo, Ph. D. provides an up-to-date and comprehensive review of the reasons why capital punishment remains so controversial. This is a very readable and informative book. (St. Martin's Press, 1997) (for more information)
  • Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment by Michael Mello, Wisconsin Press (1997). Professor Mello has been Joseph Spaziano's lawyer for many years. (Spaziano recently won a new trial after 20 years on Florida's death row.) Mello eloquently writes about what's wrong with this system.
  • Donziger, Steven R., ed.: "The real war on crime: the report of the National Criminal Justice Commission"; Harper Perennial, New York, 1997
  • "Administration of the death penalty in the United States"; International Commission of Jurists, Geneva, 1996
  • Jackson, Rev. Jesse: "Legal lynching: racism, injustice & the death penalty"; Marlowe & Company, 1996
  • "Modern capital of human rights? Abuses in the state of Georgia"; Human Rights Watch, New York, 1996
  • "The machinery of death: a shocking indictment of capital punishment in the United States"; Amnesty International Publications, New York, 1995
  • Von Drehle, David: "Among the lowest of the dead: the culture of death row"; Random House, New York, 1995
  • Mello, Michael: "Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment"
  • Prejean, Helen, C.S.J.: "Dead man walking"; Random House, New York, 1993
  • Radelet, Michael L., ed.: "Facing the death penalty"; Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1989
  • Gray, Ian and Stanley, Moira: "A punishment in search of a crime: Americans speak out against the death penalty"; Avon Books, New York, 198