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September 21, 2013

What are enduring lessons from "The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America"?

9780393239584_custom-f8e9cb67c091cd75f5a45cc9d90487109f9c5bb7-s2-c85The question in the title of this post is drawn from the title of Evan Mandery's notable new book titled "A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America."  Here is the description of the book from the publisher's website:

Drawing on never-before-published original source detail, the epic story of two of the most consequential, and largely forgotten, moments in Supreme Court history.

For two hundred years, the constitutionality of capital punishment had been axiomatic. But in 1962, Justice Arthur Goldberg and his clerk Alan Dershowitz dared to suggest otherwise, launching an underfunded band of civil rights attorneys on a quixotic crusade.  In 1972, in a most unlikely victory, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia‚Äôs death penalty law in Furman v. Georgia.  Though the decision had sharply divided the justices, nearly everyone, including the justices themselves, believed Furman would mean the end of executions in America.

Instead, states responded with a swift and decisive showing of support for capital punishment.  As anxiety about crime rose and public approval of the Supreme Court declined, the stage was set in 1976 for Gregg v. Georgia, in which the Court dramatically reversed direction.

A Wild Justice is an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the Court, the justices, and the political complexities of one of the most racially charged and morally vexing issues of our time.

I suspect I will not be able to find time to read this book until the end of classes this semester, but this recent NPR's Fresh Air interview of the author provides an effective and efficient glimpse into the stories therein. Here is how NPR sets up the interview:

In the mid-1970s, Arkansas' electric chair was being used by the prison barber to cut hair, and the execution chamber in New Hampshire was being used to store vegetables. That's because in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court shocked the nation by striking down Georgia's death penalty law, effectively ending executions in the United States. But the decision provoked a strong backlash among those who favored the death penalty, and within four years the high court reversed course and issued a set of rulings that would permit the resumption of executions.

Evan Mandery, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former capital defense attorney, has written a new account of the tumultuous legal and political battles over the death penalty. Mandery is sympathetic to those who tried to outlaw capital punishment, but his account focuses on attorneys for both sides in the battle, as well as the views and deliberations of the justices who decided the cases. His book is called A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America.

He tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about how the Supreme Court decisions of the '70s changed capital punishment.

September 21, 2013 at 11:03 AM | Permalink


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The President of the U.S. wants to go bomb Syria because they use poison gas on civilians. Yet in Jefferson City Missouri there is a state penitentiary with a gas chamber set up, full of juice, ready for use. Send in the drones.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Sep 22, 2013 12:41:51 PM

Liberty1st --

I'm sure you're just pretending not to understand the difference between using poison gas to kill innocent civilian children and using it to execute thoroughly guilty adult premeditated murderers.

I mean you DO understand, right?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 22, 2013 4:35:14 PM

"As anxiety about crime rose and public approval of the Supreme Court declined, the stage was set in 1976 for Gregg v. Georgia, in which the Court dramatically reversed direction."

Heck, no. The Supreme Court realized, we just executed a $5 billion lawyer business, the death penalty endless appeal business. And corrected themselves to not have anyone die, ending he need for a lawyer, but to put them on death row for decades.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 22, 2013 8:36:58 PM

Lib: Totally unclear as to whose side to take in Syria, both being heinous. Worse. We are not morally superior to anyone, not even Al Qaeda. We just want to survive and to not have 17,000 of our people murdered, and 5 million seriously injured by criminals each year. I figure, at the emotional level, executing up to 17,000 criminals a year has good moral symmetry, what contract lawyers call, mutuality of remedy. You criminals kill 17,000 of us, we can kill 17,000 of you criminals.

Killing 10,000 a year would end crime, by ending the violent criminal birth cohort each year. That assumes no deterrent effect, just attrition. The deceased have a low recidivism rate. Only the lawyer traitor stands between us and a crime free society. After a short while, there will not even be any executions, except for the rare criminal that did not get the memo.

All low crime cultures are characterized by one factor, public self help. Rich, poor, good criminal justice, poor criminal justice. Does not matter. The public will retaliate against crime and deter it. The criminal has to worry about the neighbors, not the police.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 23, 2013 4:05:31 AM

The book and NPR are propaganda. No one works very hard for a moral cause, not at the number of lawyers now opposing the death penalty. So many people work so hard for so long for only one thing, pay.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 23, 2013 4:10:24 AM

I borrowed it & looked it over -- looks good. The author also wrote a few fiction books, which some around here should not be surprised about since he is a defense lawyer. Snark snark.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 23, 2013 10:53:21 AM

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