Chammah, a staff writer for The Marshall Project, grew up surrounded by the politics of the death penalty in the state of Texas, which is responsible for over one third of the total 1,532 executions in the U.S. since 1976. He focuses his reporting on Texas, examining the cultural and legal forces that have made it the most prolific user of capital punishment in the U.S. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, Chammah noted that the decline of capital punishment is evident even in Texas, saying, “Texas will likely be one of the last states to give up the death penalty. It’s so ingrained here. But that said, every year, prosecutors seek fewer and fewer death sentences against defendants. It’s now less than 10 per year. And eventually, there will be, you know, so few people on death row that executions will be a much, much more rare event.” That theme of gradual erosion echoes throughout the book, which describes the decline of the death penalty as a process of slowly chipping away the worst aspects of the system, like executions of juveniles or people with intellectual disability or serious mental illness.
Let the Lord Sort Them — which won the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award — begins its historical analysis of the modern death penalty with Jurek v. Texas, the landmark 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of Texas’ unique capital sentencing procedures.
Jurek’s lawyers argued both that the death penalty inherently constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment and that the approach Texas took to capital sentencing was unconstitutional. The statute attempted to channel the jury’s sentencing discretion by having them answer questions about whether a murder was premeditated or in response to aggression by the victim and whether the defendant posed a future danger to society. The Court allowed the statute to stand, paving the way for Texas’ expansive application of capital punishment and unleashing decades of litigation over whether the statute was arbitrary and freakish as applied in individual cases or to particular classes of defendants.
Discussing the issues through the personal narratives of death row prisoners, their families, lawyers, prosecutors, and communities, Chammah explores ethical questions that he says are at the heart of the debate on capital punishment: “Can a person be ‘evil’? What does ‘justice’ mean?”
In the interview with Simon, Chammah said, “The idea of the book was to explain these big-picture historical changes that have taken place but to do it through the sort of experiences of real people because I wanted people to understand that although this issue may seem like a kind of abstract political, even a kind of culture-war issue that we fight about, the number of people whose real lives are sort of transformed and affected in very profound ways by it is sort of a piece of this public policy that we don’t spend enough time looking at.”
Beyond humanizing the history of the modern era of the death penalty, Chammah illuminates the connections between deep-rooted racial injustices and the capital punishment system. In an interview for Texas Monthly, Chammah told Rose Cahalan, “It’s interesting that it’s a little sideways, that it’s not about the race of the defendant so much as it’s about the race of the victim… The death penalty disproportionately affects Black people, but there have been many, many white people sentenced to death… You end up having this harsher, more debilitating justice system that falls along lines of class for poorer Americans. And that ends up affecting plenty of white people, but disproportionately Black Americans.” The Death Penalty Information Center’s report, Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty, looks beyond Texas in exploring the unjust influence of systemic racism in deciding who is executed.
With his wife, Chammah co-organizes a writing contest for those who are incarcerated, called The Insider Prize. Chammah believes that amplifying the voices of people living on death row is vital in portraying the unjust, broken system of the death penalty in the U.S. Chammah writes about the importance of the individuals who have been executed, exonerated, and are living on death row, “If you look closely you’ll see the stories they are telling us about ourselves.”
Sources: Maurice Chammah, Legal Lynching on death row in Texas, Strangers Guide, January 27, 2021; Anand Giridharadas, Why the Death Penalty Is Dying: A New Book Tells the Surprising Story, The New York Times, January 26, 2021; Scott Simon, Maurice Chammah Charts the History of the Death Penalty in ‘Let the Lord Sort Them,’ NPR, January 23, 2021; Sam Seder & Emma Vigeland, The History of the American Death Penalty w/Maurice Chammah, The Morning Report, February 1, 2021; Author Spotlight: Maurice Chammah, The Crown Publishing Group; Maurice Chammah, The Case That Made Texas the Death Penalty Capital, The Marshall Project, January 26, 2021; Rose Cahalan, Why is the Death Penalty on Decline in Texas?, Texas Monthly, January 28, 2021.
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