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The Death Penalty in the U.S.A. -- Past, Present, and Future

The Death Penalty in the U.S.A. - Past, Present, and Future

Book Reviews by Roger Hummel

Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House by Scott Christianson. New York University Press, New York. 184 pages (illustrated), $24.95, cloth.

Beginning late in the nineteenth
century, New York State boasted electric chairs at three state prisons. For more than 70 years, New York electrocuted 1,352 prisoners until 1963 when the Empire State declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional. Almost half of those 1,352 executions were performed at Sing Sing.

Using recently and reluctantly released state records, investigative reporter Scott Christianson now takes us on a poignant photographic tour of New York's notorious Sing Sing prison and death house.

Built in 1825 on the banks of the Hudson River 35 miles north of New York City, Sing Sing electrocuted 606 men and eight women between 1891 and 1963. The first use of Sing Sing's electric chair occurred on July 7, 1891; the last electrocution, and the last execution to be carried out in New York State during the twentieth century, took place on August 15, 1963. Thereafter, Sing Sing's electric chair was consigned to a museum in Virginia.

Accompanying the chronological roster of the 614 men and women who did not leave the death house alive, Christianson's book presents a thoughtful collection of previously secret photographs, official records, prison rules (correspondence with newspapers was forbidden), letters to and from prisoners, telegrams, appeals (one-third of those who entered Sing Sing's death house eventually left it alive), and last meal requests.

With sparse text and stark exhibits, Condemned gives the reader a heretofore unavailable perspective on the machinery of death during an era when the interval between pronouncement of sentence and execution was often less than a year. Christianson's book is especially relevant during these times when the wisdom of capital punishment is increasingly being called into question.

Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future , by Rev Jesse L. Jackson Sr, Rep Jesse L. Jackson Jr, and Bruce Shapiro. The New Press, New York. 160 pages, $22.95, cloth.

During the final presidential de-
bate in October 2000, then-Governor Bush was asked about his views on the death penalty. He responded, "I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people's lives."

There is a fatal flaw in that reasoning: It isn't true. The death penalty is not an effective means to save lives or reduce crime; its deterrent effect is limited to the incapacitation of the single criminal who is being executed.

The authors of Legal Lynching build upon this premise to make a compelling case against the death penalty in the U.S. Citing the works of respected academics, historians, theologians, and criminologists, Jackson et al expose the defects in our system of capital punishment.

Each chapter of Legal Lynching advances convincing arguments against the death penalty with discussions of ineffective attorneys, factual innocence, vengeance, biblical proscriptions, voyeuristic executions, and statistical comparisons.

Citing historical precedents in the U.S., the authors describe the first execution in the Jamestown colony when, in 1608, the British hanged George Kendall, an accused mutineer. In the 1690s, there were the notorious executions following the Salem witchcraft trials. By the early 1700s, however, use of the death penalty became more restrained and colonial governors showed a greater degree of compassion than do most death-penalty states' governors today.

In modern times, we find an unlikely opponent of capital punishment in former Attorney General Janet Reno who put it this way in 1999: "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate this point."

Legal Lynching concludes with what appears to be the full text of the proposed "National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2001" as introduced to the U.S. Congress by Rep Jesse Jackson Jr. While adoption of Jackson's bill is unlikely, the text makes interesting reading for those hoping for a quick fix to the nation's capital punishment problems.

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