Who Owns Death?: Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions

Who Owns Death?: Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions

by Robert J. Lifton, Greg Mitchell

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In this timely book, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell investigate the mindsets of individuals involved in the death penalty — including prison wardens, prosecutors, jurors, religious figures, governors, judges, and relatives of murder victims — and offer a textured look at a system that perpetuates the longstanding American habit of violence.


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In this timely book, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell investigate the mindsets of individuals involved in the death penalty — including prison wardens, prosecutors, jurors, religious figures, governors, judges, and relatives of murder victims — and offer a textured look at a system that perpetuates the longstanding American habit of violence.

Richly rewarding and meticulously researched, Who Owns Death? explores the history of the death penalty in the United States, from hanging to lethal injection, and considers what this search for more "humane" executions reveals about us as individuals and as a society... and what the future of the death penalty holds for us all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In their preface, the authors write that they want to "understand the reasons for America's unyielding support for executions." But don't be fooled: this is a subtle, provocative argument against the death penalty. Lifton and Mitchell, longtime opponents of capital punishment, trace the history of the issue back to the Greeks--inexplicably ignoring the penalty's biblical roots. The bulk of the book, however, delves into capital punishment today. Lifton and Mitchell argue that, in the U.S., one of the few Western industrialized countries to still practice the death penalty, this willingness for the state to execute its citizens derives from a deep-seated violent core of American history beginning with the American Revolution. Today, they say, the death penalty both feeds into a "pornography of violence" and fulfills our desire to eradicate evil. Relying heavily on case studies, the authors probe what they see as the corrosive effect of the death penalty on prison wardens and chaplains, as well as on the governors who often make the final decisions on whether a convicted criminal will die. Given what they report, the authors' optimism that the death penalty may be on the way out appears forced. But both opponents and supporters of the death penalty will find themselves enriched by this book. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Eschewing the legal jargon often associated with the topic, Lifton (The Nazi Doctors) and Mitchell (Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady) offer a social and ethical perspective of the death penalty, highlighting the faulty logic behind it as well as its inherent conflict with the nation's moral conscience. In much the same manner that Hollywood assigns credits at the end of a movie to those who have participated in its creation, the authors assign possessory credit to each and every person involved in the bureaucratic process culminating in an execution. They allocate responsibility for the final act to specific individuals, such as prosecutors, judges, juries, defense attorneys, and state legislators, and citizens who vote for death-penalty proponents, among others. By shifting the blame from a nameless entity ("the state") toward individuals, the authors pinpoint and elucidate the weaknesses of the system. A new era of introspection and self-analysis is beginning to influence all participants in the grisly process, which, the authors contend, will result in the eventual abolition of capital punishment in America. Essential for anyone involved in the death penalty debate and highly recommended for academic and law libraries.--Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Lib., New York Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Who Owns Death is an impassioned and informative piece of writing on a melancholy subject.
Abraham Verghese
It is a remarkable testimony to the authors' skills and the clarity of their writing that . . . by the end of this book the reader will agree that . . . inexorable social forces are carrying us to the eventual abolition of the death penalty.
New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

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Read an Excerpt

The Pope's Travel Plans

Three States, Three Views of the Death Penalty

Nearly three decades have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty had been applied capriciously and arbitrarily in America. Justice Byron White declared that "there is no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which it is imposed from the many cases in which it is not." The court threw out all state and federal laws prescribing capital punishment but did not ban future executions if the system could be made more consistent.

Rather than letting capital punishment go, most states set out to reform their laws to win the Supreme Court's approval so that executions could resume. They might not have gotten very far, except that public opinion, which had briefly turned against state killing, had changed again. The murder rate was soaring and fear of crime--along with increasing anger at the perpetrators--had sent support for executions spiraling upward again.

Reflecting the shift in popular sentiment, the Supreme Court in 1976 ruled that executions could indeed return as states made their capital procedures clearer for all and somewhat fairer for racial minorities. Now events moved swiftly. The following year Gary Gilmore became the first condemned American to die since 1967, shot by a firing squad in a makeshift execution chamber in Utah. By the early 1980s, backing for capital punishment had reached 72 percent in the Gallup poll, and it kept gaining after that. Slowly, the execution rate rose, from a handful a year to several dozen to ninety-eight in 1999--marking a return to the level of the pre-1950s, where it may well remainfor some time.

On the surface, then, we are experiencing what might be called a return to the heyday of capital punishment in America. In fact, the upsurge in executions may be sowing the seeds for its demise.

For the death penalty protocol in the United States remains nearly as arbitrary as it was thirty years ago when it was halted, for a time, by the Supreme Court. It could hardly be otherwise, in a country with fifty states, each with its own laws covering executions. Even within the same state, procedures for prosecuting capital cases vary from county to county. And this doesn't even begin to take into account the luck of the lottery--the fact that a prisoner's fate is often determined mainly by the makeup of a jury and the competence of his attorney, not the brutality of his crime.

So the arbitrary nature of capital punishment is nothing new. Indeed, it is inherent. What appears to be changing is that a wide range of Americans--from Catholic bishops to conservative governors--appear increasingly uneasy with its still erratic application. In fact, the latest Gallup poll on this issue, in February 2000, found support for capital punishment at its lowest level in nineteen years--66 percent, down from 80 percent in 1994. In the spring of 2000, a number of conservatives, including evangelist Pat Robertson, endorsed a national moratorium, citing concerns about unjust convictions, or expressed new "skepticism" regarding the death penalty, as columnist George Will put it.

And although the overall execution rate is up, this masks the fact that the majority of executions are carried out by just four states: Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Missouri. Most states rarely, if ever, execute anyone, although laws allowing executions remain on the books; and twelve states continue to ban the practice altogether. Kill one man in Texas, and you lose your life; slaughter a family in Michigan, and you never face the execution chamber.

A look at three widely scattered states, with very different attitudes toward capital punishment, illustrates the volatility of public and official attitudes about the death penalty in America, and how its arbitrary nature causes widespread discomfort, and increasingly, moral or ethical outrage.

Missouri: Who Can We Execute?

In November 1998, the Missouri supreme court ruled that Darrell J. Mease must die by lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Potosi on January 27, 1999. This was, in death row parlance, a "firm date," and further appeals appeared hopeless. Missouri had executed nine men in the past two years, making it the third most active death penalty state in the nation, and few doubted that Mease would soon be added to that list. A state Republican leader called Mease a "poster boy for the death penalty." The prisoner had avoided the death chamber for ten years, but now his luck was running out.

Or was it?

Back in 1988, Darrell Mease, then 42, hid along a gravel path in the Ozark woods near Reeds Spring, Missouri, dressed in camouflage clothes, and ambushed a 69-year-old man (his former drug partner), the man's wife, and their 19-year-old grandson (a paraplegic) as they approached, driving all-terrain vehicles. Then he shot each of them in the face at point-blank range. Mease confessed to the crime. A jury convicted him, and the verdict was upheld on appeal in one court after another during the following decade. The governor of Missouri, a moderate Democrat named Mel Carnahan, was not likely to commute his sentence; this happened only about once a year in the entire nation, and Mease was considered an exceedingly poor candidate for clemency.

But then Darrell Mease, in a sense, became the luckiest man alive. A few days after the state's highest court set a date for his execution, the Vatican announced that Pope John Paul II, an increasingly outspoken opponent of the death penalty, would visit St. Louis on the very day Measc was to take his last breath. In an attempt to avoid a public relations fiasco, the court postponed Mease's execution two weeks, but this only drew more attention to. A Vatican spokesman called the delay "a mockery," and the pope prepared a speech, to be delivered in Missouri, affirming in his strongest language yet his opposition to capital punishment. He called on America to "resist the culture of death and choose to stand steadfastly on the side of life."

Who Owns Death?. Copyright © by Robert J. Lifton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Robert Jay Lifton's books include The Nazi Doctors, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (winner of a National Book Award), and Destroying the World to Save It. He is the director of the Center on Violence and Human Survival at John Jay College and also teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Greg Mitchell is the author of several acclaimed political books, including Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady and The Campaign of the Century, as well as a memoir, Joy in Mudville. He currently serves as features editor of Editor & Publisher magazine.

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