A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America

A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America

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by Evan J. Mandery

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New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
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


New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
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’s 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.

Editorial Reviews

Emily Bazelon - Slate
The New York Times Book Review - David Oshinsky
Explaining Furman and its implications can be tricky, but Evan Mandery…has done both with remarkable ease. A Wild Justice covers a decade's worth of litigation, beginning in the mid-1960s with a daring strategy by death penalty abolitionists to grab the Supreme Court's attention and ending in the mid-1970s with an angry public backlash and a crushing legal defeat. Mandery knows how to tell a story, and he's done some terrific research. His judgments are crisp and generally fair-minded, despite a clear sympathy for the abolitionist side.
Publishers Weekly
It takes a gifted writer to craft a thriller out of the efforts to have capital punishment declared unconstitutional, but Mandery pulls it off in this intellectual page-turner. Without sacrificing detail, the capital attorney and criminal justice professor at John Jay College pulls back the curtain on the horse-trading that led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Georgia’s death-penalty statute in 1972, and then change its collective mind just four years later. The prologue traces the background of the 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, as, in 1963, liberal Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg posed the question to his law clerk, “What could be more cruel than the deliberate decision by the state to take a human life?” Goldberg’s goal was to force the Supreme Court of Alabama to hand over for review a decision involving a rapist sentenced to death, in the hopes that it would prompt a discussion of the constitutionality of capital punishment. A lack of support even from those justices who were sympathetic to Goldberg’s memorandum doomed his efforts, but it paved the way for a valiant battle waged by the lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The lawyers prevailed in the short term, but public backlash against the decisions of an increasingly unpopular Supreme Court led to the reversal of Furman in 1976’s Gregg v. Georgia—leaving Mandery to indulge in some fascinating counterfactual history in his concluding section. 8 pages of photos. Agent: Sam Stoloff, Frances Goldin Literary Agency. (Aug.)
Maurice Chammah - Austin-American Statesman
“Mandery has managed to turn textbook-style legal history into cinematic scenes with memorable characters.”
Andrew Cohen - The Atlantic
“Important…. Remarkable.”
David Dagan - Washington Monthly
“Litigating the death penalty is like riding a bull. You can’t tame it—so just hang on tight and prepare to be thrown.”
David Oshinsky - New York Times Book Review
“Explaining Furman and its implications can be tricky, but Evan Mandery… has done both with remarkable ease. Mandery knows how to tell a story, and he’s done some terrific research.”
Noah Feldman
“The fascinating story of the abolition of the death penalty—and its restoration—had found its ideal narrator in Evan Mandery. At once a page turner and a work of serious scholarship, A Wild Justice puts you inside the justices' deliberations and the advocates’ strategizing. Required reading for anyone who cares about the Supreme Court and how it shapes our lives.”
Sanford Levinson - History Book Club
“Mandery has at once written one of the very best books I have ever read not only on the Supreme Court as an institution, but also on the death penalty itself…. One keeps turning the pages in order to find out what happens next.”
“He portrays the complex personalities behind the arguments on both sides and a court as sensitive to political tides as moral and philosophical concerns on an issue that continues to remain controversial.”
Jen Vafidis - The Daily Beast
“If someone described a book about the Supreme Court’s decisions to strike down and then reinstate the death penalty as thrilling, would you believe her? You should; that’s exactly what A Wild Justice is. Reading it, you get swept up in the details of the court cases that determined capital punishment’s upheaval and rapid resurrection over the course of two decades. This is thanks to Mandery’s skill for whittling down complex legal situations to punchy play-by-plays.”
Jeffrey Toobin
“A Wild Justice is sensational—a revealing and illuminating behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important chapters in the history of the Supreme Court. After reading it, you may never look at the death penalty, or the justices, the same way again.”
Sean Wilentz
“With a powerful story and an exceptional cast of characters—including Arthur Goldberg, Alan Dershowitz, and Robert Bork at their best—A Wild Justice is a rare achievement. At once entertaining and deeply instructive, it is a piece of legal history that grapples brilliantly with capital punishment, one of the fundamental issues of American justice.”
Library Journal
Mandery (criminal justice, John Jay Coll.; Capital Punishment in America: A Balanced Examination) has written a tour de force examination of how the U.S. Supreme Court from 1963 to 1977 ruled on death penalty issues. Filled with information from the justices' private papers as well as extensive interviews with their clerks and with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund counsel (especially Anthony Amsterdam), this book is revelatory. Unlike Bob Woodward's The Brethren and Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine, it shows how all the court's players (politicians, clerks, litigants) had a part in its capital punishment decisions. The book especially benefits from the author's interviews with the clerks, which show how they influenced the justices. The justices struggled to separate their private views on the death penalty from their official positions as members of the court. The author places the court's opinions in the context of the times, showing how the era's politics and the justices' personal lives affected their views. VERDICT As much a sociological study as a discussion of the law, this volume is well written and illuminating. Recommended for all audiences.—Harry Charles, St. Louis
Kirkus Reviews
When the Supreme Court declined to accept the appeal of a 1963 rape case, Justice Arthur Goldberg published an unusual dissent questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty. From this small beginning, Mandery (John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Q: A Novel, 2011, etc.) skillfully traces the building momentum within the country and the court to question the legality of a punishment the Founding Fathers took for granted. Indeed, by 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the court struck down death penalty statutes so similar to those in 40 other states that executions nationwide came to a halt. Disagreement among Furman's 5-4 majority--was the death penalty "cruel and unusual" punishment under the Eighth Amendment, or was its arbitrary application a violation under the 14th?--and a forceful dissent hinted at a blueprint for states to rewrite their capital-sentencing schemes. By 1976, 35 had done so. In Gregg v. Georgia and its companion cases, the court approved the revised statutes, opening the door to 1,300 state-sponsored executions since. Relying on interviews with law clerks and attorneys, information from economists, criminologists and social scientists, arguments from political and legal scholars, a thorough knowledge of all applicable cases and sure-handed storytelling, Mandery focuses on the strategies of the Legal Defense Fund, the remarkable attorneys who led the charge for abolition, to cover virtually every dimension of the capital punishment debate. The author is especially strong on the individual backgrounds, personalities and judicial philosophies of the justices, the shifting alliances among them and the frustrating contingencies upon which momentous decisions sometimes turn. Even those weary of this topic will be riveted by his insider information about towering figures, lawyers and judges. Outstanding in every respect.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Evan J. Mandery is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. A former capital defense attorney, he is the author of five previous books. He lives in Manhasset, New York.

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A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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