The Autobiography of an Execution

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Overview

Winner of the 2010 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Nonfiction

David R. Dow has had access to a world most of us will never experience. As a lawyer, he has represented over one hundred death-row cases. Many of his clients have died. Most were guilty. Some might have been innocent. The Autobiography of an Execution is his deeply personal story about justice, the death penalty, and a lawyer's life.

His life at paradoxical ...

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Overview

Winner of the 2010 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Nonfiction

David R. Dow has had access to a world most of us will never experience. As a lawyer, he has represented over one hundred death-row cases. Many of his clients have died. Most were guilty. Some might have been innocent. The Autobiography of an Execution is his deeply personal story about justice, the death penalty, and a lawyer's life.

His life at paradoxical extremes: Witnessing executions and then coming home to the loving embrace of his wife and young son, who inqure about Dow's day. Waging moral battles on behalf of people who have committed abhorrent crimes. Fighting for life in America's death-penalty capital, within a criminal justice system full of indifferent and ineffectual judges. Racing against time on behalf of clients who have no more time.

Regardless of your views on the death penalty, Dow's writing will take you inside the issue in striking, intimate ways: through the complicated minds of judges, inside prisons and execution-administration chambers, and into his own home, where the toll of working on these gnarled and difficult cases is often paid. Ultimately, he shows us a world where suspense clings to every word and action, where human lives hang in the balance, and where doing the right thing is never as easy as it sounds.

Discover Awards Commentary

With the pacing of a thriller, this memoir, by a defense attorney for those on death row, is a provocative exploration of justice.

From the Judges

"A brilliantly powerful book. This memoir reads like dark poetry, allowing the reader to interpret Dow's inner voice, and judge his inner demons as if they reside inside the reader him or herself.... This book should be required reading for anybody with an opinion about the death penalty. Regardless of where you stand, you'll walk away both disturbed and enlightened -- as if you've witnessed an execution firsthand." -- Eric Blehm

"I've never read a book quite like this. To be honest, the story of a lawyer on death row in Texas didn't sound that promising, but from the very first sentence, it was absolutely compelling; and by the end, it had me in tears.... How on earth do you go home to your wife and 9-year-old son after witnessing the execution of a client you think innocent? Dow has represented more than 100 of these individuals. I flinched at the line when he phones home and his son cheerfully asks, 'Hi Dada, did you have a good day at the death row?' I would challenge anyone to read this book and not question a system where trial lawyers snooze through most of a capital murder case, or appeals courts abruptly close at 5:00 p.m. so judges can get home for tea." -- Christina Lamb

"No matter how you feel about capital punishment -- and especially if you support it, whether staunchly or uneasily -- this book will bring you face to face with the arbitrary, often capricious way in which the death penalty really works. It's the most sobering book that I read in 2010." -- Terry Teachout

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

And an encore for this powerful memoir by a Texas appellate lawyer who has worked on the cases of more than one hundred death-row inmates. The Autobiography of an Execution has been named a 2010 Discover Great New Writers finalist!

Dahlia Lithwick
Dow isn't doing high constitutional theory here; this is pure red meat. What Dow exposes in this dark, raw memoir is not just a dispassionate machinery of death that cannot be slowed, reversed or mediated by truth, logic or fact. He also exposes the inner life of a man who, in the face of all that, cannot give up the fight.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In an argument against capital punishment, Dow’s capable memoir partially gathers its steam from the emotional toll on all parties involved, especially the overworked legal aid lawyers and their desperate clients. The author, the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service and a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, respects the notion of attorney-client privilege in this handful of real-life legal outcomes, some of them quite tragic, while acknowledging executions are “not about the attorneys,” but “about the victims of murder and sometimes their killers.” While trying to maintain a proper balance in his marriage to Katya, a fellow attorney and ballroom dancer, he spells out the maze of legal mumbo-jumbo to get his clients stays or released from confinement in the cases of a hapless Vietnam vet who shot a child, another man who beat his pregnant wife to death and another who killed his wife and children. In the end, Dow’s book is a sobering, gripping and candid look into the death penalty. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
Appellate lawyer Dow (Law/Univ. of Houston Law Center; America's Prophets: How Judicial Activism Makes America Great, 2009, etc.) delivers an unsparing indictment of capital punishment in America and the legal system that enables it. Most of the more than 100 death-row clients the author has represented since 1989 were indeed guilty of unspeakable crimes. Yet, he writes, "if you believe it's wrong to kill, you believe it's wrong to kill." So Dow continually tried to prevent-or, more likely, delay, if only for a few days or hours-his clients' executions by a legal system in which "you hardly ever win." In this racist, classist system, writes the author, prosecutors hide evidence and police lie, lawyers fall asleep during their clients' trials, appellate lawyers forget to file appeals on time, judges condemn with indifference and moral cowardice and nobody in the system-from the jury to the Supreme Court-is required to see the results of their actions: the taking of a human life. At the center of Dow's story is the case of Henry Quaker, who was found guilty of the brutal murders of his wife and children. As more evidence was uncovered, however-including the confession of another death-row inmate that he was responsible for the murders-Dow became convinced that Quaker was one of his few innocent clients. In this deft page-turner, Dow brings the reader into the legal world, as he and his colleagues tried nearly every legal gambit to have Quaker spared, in the days, hours and minutes before his time of execution. The author is equally skilled at evoking the personal toll created by the trial-the sleepless nights, the endless work, the neglect of a lovingly portrayed wife and son, whonevertheless sustained and inspired him. A book of uncompromising honesty and moral beauty.
Anthony Lewis
"I have read much about capital punishment, but David Dow's book leaves all else behind."
John Grisham
"For a lot of good reasons, and some that are not so good, executions in the U.S. are carried out in private. The voters, the vast majority of whom support executions, are not allowed to see them. The Autobiography of an Execution is a riveting and compelling account of a Texas execution written and narrated by a lawyer in the thick of the last minute chaos. It should be read by all those who support state sponsored killing."
Dave Cullen
"Defending the innocent is easy. David Dow fights for the questionable. He is tormented, but relentless, and takes us inside his struggle with candor and insight, shudders and all."
Jeffrey Toobin
"David Dow's extraordinary memoir lifts the veil on the real world of representing defendants on death row. It will stay with me a long time."

From the Publisher
"For a lot of good reasons, and some that are not so good, executions in the U.S. are carried out in private. The voters, the vast majority of whom support executions, are not allowed to see them. The Autobiography of an Execution is a riveting and compelling account of a Texas execution written and narrated by a lawyer in the thick of the last minute chaos. It should be read by all those who support state sponsored killing."

John Grisham, author of The Innocent Man

"David Dow's extraordinary memoir lifts the veil on the real world of representing defendants on death row. It will stay with me a long time."

Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine

"I have read much about capital punishment, but David Dow's book leaves all else behind."—Anthony Lewis

"In an argument against capital punishment, Dow's capable memoir partially gathers its steam from the emotional toll on all parties involved, especially the overworked legal aid lawyers and their desperate clients. The author, the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service and a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, respects the notion of attorney-client privilege in this handful of real-life legal outcomes, some of them quite tragic, while acknowledging executions are 'not about the attorneys,' but 'about the victims of murder and sometimes their killers.' While trying to maintain a proper balance in his marriage to Katya, a fellow attorney and ballroom dancer, he spells out the maze of legal mumbo-jumbo to get his clients stays or released from confinement in the cases of a hapless Vietnam vet who shot a child, another man who beat his pregnant wife to death and another who killed his wife and children. In the end, Dow's book is a sobering, gripping and candid look into the death penalty."

Publishers Weekly

"Defending the innocent is easy. David Dow fights for the questionable. He is tormented, but relentless, and takes us inside his struggle with candor and insight, shudders and all."

Dave Cullen, author of Columbine

Library Journal
Dow (law, Univ. of Houston Law Ctr.; founder & director, Texas Innocence) defends prisoners on death row and is a vocal opponent of the death penalty. In this true-crime narrative, he gives a first-person account of the legal system and capital punishment from multiple perspectives, altering the details of the cases he discusses so they are unrecognizable. The most poignant and central case revolves around a convicted murderer who in all likelihood is innocent but who nonetheless remains on death row because of incompetent lawyers at both the original and state appeal levels. The author himself reads, addditionally speaking to the ways in which these cases have impacted his private life; his passion about his work is evident. A scholarly essay on legal ethics regarding confidential information is followed by an interview with the author. For anyone interested in capital punishment and for all true crime and legal collections of all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.—Ed.]—J. Sara Paulk, Fitzgerald-Ben Hill Cty. Lib., GA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455504060
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 3/2/2011
  • Pages: 271
  • Sales rank: 257,078
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

David R. Dow is professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center and an internationally recognized figure in the fight against the death penalty. He is the founder and director of the Texas Innocence Project. He lives in Houston, Texas.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 56 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 57 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2010

    Great Topic but...

    Mr. Dow is a committed and excellent lawyer. The passion he brings to his work is evident in this book. However, the essential elements of this book would have made an excellent long format magazine article in either, say, Esquire or Rolling Stone. The unfolding store of death row inmate "Henry" is gripping and the trials and tribulations that Mr. Dow goes through to help him is moving while teaching the reader a lot about the legal process.

    But Mr. Dow fills 2/3's of his book with musings about his family that have little or no relationship to the book's central theme. While his relationships with his wife and son appear top notch, the annectodes and asides about their daily lives are a distraction to the book's importance. In addition, the writing style includes the decision to omit all use of quotation marks. There is a lot of reporting of dialogue in this book and without the proper use of quotes, the reading is combersome and awkward. Not sure the benefit of this...maybe to seem "stream of conscienceness"????????

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2010

    Remarkable Book

    "The Autobiography of an Execution" by David Dow is a remarkable book about a man who works as a death row attorney. The book follows the story of one particular death row inmate accused of murdering his wife and children. As the facts of the case are revealed including the shoddy handling by his previous attorneys, we begin to see how our justice system, both complex and largely impersonal, is ultimately the result of the various men and women who work in the field. These insights are paralleled by everyday occurrences in Dow's personal life. We see that his family is his foundation which keeps him grounded. Along the way we are introduced to various characters on both sides of the prison bars, revealing many complex personalities, but always with the idea of following the main story to its conclusion. Throughout the book Dow peppers us with delightful philosophical insights and nuggets of wisdom to keep us thinking, to help us understand what it is like to walk in his shoes and work with his clients. In the end one cannot help but be sobered by the experience of watching this man who, in the end, cannot save anybody, only delay the inevitable, yet these rare victories help keep him going. His love for his family is what keeps him sane in a world where the rule of law is handled like a mathematical equation yet where attorneys can sometimes make a difference. This is not a textbook about the death penalty or capital punishment - it is a narrative, and through the use of story, one not only learns about our justice system, but feels its effects on all involved. It is a glimpse into purgatory, and the resolve of a group of brave men and women to make a difference in the lives of people who deserve respect and their own dignity despite being convicted of heinous crimes. It is an important addition to the ongoing debate regarding capital punishment in the United States.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2010

    Excellent Read

    This Book was well written and I could not put it down. Mr Dow takes you into a execution and it is as if your there and how he balances his Life. Thank-you Mr Dow for sharing!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2011

    Why is the nook book more than the paperback?

    I thought the reason for having a nook was that you could access the electronic version cheeper than the paper. Why would it cost more for the download than the prointed version?

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2010

    Poignant and honest

    Much has been made of the 'honesty' of this memoir given the nature of attorney-client privilege. However, Dow has written a beautiful book that balances the futility and agony of his profession and the oft forgotten wonder of the domestic life that keeps him sane and functioning. Highly recommended!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2010

    GREAT

    Great book. Very interesting read - makes you expand your views on the subject.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2010

    The Hardest Job In The World.

    If out of 100 people on death row, it turns out to be that one is innocent, that's one too many. I cried after reading this book because not only was it one of the most shocking things I'd ever read, but the author's life is directly affected by the work he does and yet he still continues to fight.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2011

    I'm the Lincoln from the book.

    I'm reading my dad's book and I really like it, however I really want to say that throughout the book he calls himself a bad father. I HATE that. He's a great dad, and I wish he didn't lie about that in the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 23, 2011

    Great read- but don't get your hopes up either!

    This book is a great read. But don't expect it to move mountains in the way of social commentary concerning capital punishment.

    The memoir follows the life of Counselor Dow in both the legal and familiar arenas. He does a great job showing the intersection of these two worlds as he sees them. Often jumping from one random though to another, he ties it all together in the end and leaves the reader going "ah-ha".

    The book follows one main case, obviously a case that left a lasting impression of Dow, while also juggling the story lines of other cases and criminals at the same time. It almost feels like you are reading a novel, and every once and while you get commentary from the author.

    All in all though, it is a great read, that doesn't require too many brain cells or emotional investment. Good read for a short vacation, or road trip. I bought it on NOOK, and will not by the print version. Just not a writing that carries the kind of punch I would physically want on my bookshelf. But again, I do recommend it for a great casual read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2011

    Don't understand all the fuss

    If it weren't for the interesting story line (impending death) this book would be average at best. Dow does a good job trying to get the reader to empathize with convicted killers, child rapists and other seriously deranged individuals. When each is extinguished you do feel moved. If you are anti-death it will be sadness. If you are pro-death its more the frankness of finality and little it resolves in people's lives touched by the crime.

    Around page 20 comes what you'd expect. A guy convicted and sentenced to death. And of course, he's obviously innocent. He's first lawyer stunk. The police botched the crime scene and the person has no one "in his corner." This alone is enough to keep you interested until the end.

    At the same time, the writing style is drab. Its matter-of-fact style fights with being to simplistic and is complete with cliches every few pages; something you'd find in a Patterson crime novel.

    I'm still wrestling with why this book has received such high regard. most of the other titles in the new and discover area were much better reads (Peace Like a River, Child 44, etc).

    I'm not a crime lover fan - so maybe thats it. DON'T RECOMMEND

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2011

    This should be labeled fiction

    I couldn't get past the Authors Note. He changed so much detail, at what point is a book still considered Non-Fiction? Poetic license is one thing, but the deliberate distortion of facts allegedly in the name of Attorney-Client Privilege to such an admitted degree makes the book useless as a fact based tome that could be used for research purposes or to sway an opinion. Even the title is misleading...really, an execution can pen an autobiography?

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 7, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The Autobiography of an Execution is a compelling look at death

    The Autobiography of an Execution is a compelling look at death penalty cases from the perspective of a death penalty lawyer. One of the things that makes this book unique is that Dow doesn't focus on cases of the wrongly executed, which would easily gain more sympathy from readers. Instead we're shown an array of condemned men, from the inexcusably guilty to the mentally incompetent killer to the one who was, in all likelihood, innocent.

    Most people unfamiliar with the inner workings of our justice system would assume the appeals process is in place in order to ensure the guilt of those convicted prior to their execution. This is absolutely not the case. Appeals are about technicalities and administrative errors. They're about filing exactly the right motion, worded exactly the right way, at exactly the right time. Dow takes us along through his workdays, showing us just how broken and corrupt our justice system has become.

    Another aspect making this a compelling read is Dow's willingness to make it personal. He invites us into his world, letting us see how emotionally draining it is to race against the clock, only to then watch his clients die at the hands of the state. The transition between the darkness of his work and the bright light of his family is a difficult hurdle to jump over and over again. That bright light, though, is what keeps him grounded and allows him to work within such a bleak environment.

    When I consider the death penalty, I most often think of the men and women locked away waiting for us to kill them. I think about guilt and innocence, and the fact that executing even one innocent person is unacceptable. David Dow does a superb job of showing me the lawyer's viewpoint. Maybe looking for the innocent needle in the guilty haystack is the wrong approach to reform. If the system worked the way it was supposed to, we would have no fear of executing an innocent or a mentally retarded person. Better yet, maybe this book can serve as a lesson that a reasonable society shouldn't have the death penalty at all.

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  • Posted April 18, 2011

    Interesting and interesting and realistic context

    NPR interview with David got my attention to get the book and quick read

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  • Posted April 9, 2011

    admire author, not style

    while i very much admire the author's character and morals, I found his writing style dry and boring and struggled to finish this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted July 25, 2011

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