The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

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Why does the United States continue to employ the death penalty when fifty other developed democracies have abolished it? Why does capital punishment become more problematic each year? How can the death penalty conflict be resolved?
In The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, Frank Zimring reveals that the seemingly insoluble turmoil surrounding the death penalty reflects a deep and long-standing division in American values, a division that he predicts will soon bring about the end of capital punishment in our country. On the one hand, execution would seem to violate our nation's highest legal principles of fairness and due process. It sets us increasingly apart from our allies and indeed is regarded by European nations as a barbaric and particularly egregious form of American exceptionalism. On the other hand, the death penalty represents a deeply held American belief in violent social justice that sees the hangman as an agent of local control and safeguard of community values. Zimring uncovers the most troubling symptom of this attraction to vigilante justice in the lynch mob. He shows that the great majority of executions in recent decades have occurred in precisely those Southern states where lynchings were most common a hundred years ago. It is this legacy, Zimring suggests, that constitutes both the distinctive appeal of the death penalty in the United States and one of the most compelling reasons for abolishing it.
Impeccably researched and engagingly written, Contradictions in American Capital Punishment casts a clear new light on America's long and troubled embrace of the death penalty.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This work by Zimring (director, Earl Warren Legal Inst., Univ. of California, Berkeley) is essentially a sociological analysis of American capital punishment that closely parallels, but greatly enhances, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell's Who Owns Death, which focuses on the psychology of the jury; Zimring's documents the capital punishment process as it varies from one region to another. Differences, the author concludes, derive from the uniquely American belief that official punishments are the extension of the community rather than a function of the government. To explain the striking difference in death sentence outcomes between Texas and California, for example, he creates a novel and bold regional sociology of capital punishment. Although controversial, this work is undoubtedly at the forefront of the debate over interstate variations in death penalty jurisprudence. Essential for law libraries.-Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Lib., First Judicial Dist., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly study of what increasingly passes for business as usual in many American prisons: the execution of the condemned. Capital punishment, maintains Zimring (Law/Berkeley), is barbaric, a throwback to an earlier age. Much of the world has now rejected it. Even so, American states have more and more resorted to killing prisoners. "By the year 2000," he writes, "the volume of executions by American states had bounced back to levels quite close to those experienced during the early 1950s," the decade in which the number of state-sanctioned killings began to fall sharply from earlier historic highs. But not every state uses capital punishment as the ultimate payback for crime, and while some states (e.g., New Hampshire, New Jersey, and South Dakota) keep the possibility of it on the books, it is only rarely applied outside the American South. Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma conducted more than two-thirds of all executions in the past two decades. Texas alone, Zimring notes, "executes more people . . . in an average year than had been executed in the quarter of a century after 1977 in the four most populous northern states that have experienced any executions." The author observes that these southern states, and others that employ capital punishment, are precisely those in which vigilante and mob justice prevailed. In other words, there is a historical continuum that runs from extrajudicial to judicial execution: "The lynch mob and the lethal injection are found in the same American neighborhoods"--but scarcely anywhere else in the civilized world. Ending capital punishment, Zimring argues, will involve the resolution of long-running disputes in American history over state and communityrights versus those of the federal government, disputes that rage strongest in just those places where executions, and lynchings, were and are still common. Thought-provoking, well-founded ammunition for the endless debate over capital punishment.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Franklin Zimring is the William G Simon Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Research Program at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Crime Is Not the Problem and American Youth Violence, both published by OUP.

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Table of Contents

I Divergent Trends 1
1 The Peculiar Present of American Capital Punishment 3
2 More Than a Trend: Abolition in the Developed Nations 16
3 The Symbolic Transformation of American Capital Punishment 42
II Explaining the American Difference 65
4 Federalism and Its Discontents 67
5 The Vigilante Tradition and Modern Executions 89
6 The Consequences of Contradictory Values 119
III Capital Punishment in the American Future 141
7 The No-Win 1990s 143
8 The Beginning of the End 179
App. A Statistical Materials on Lynchings and Executions 207
App. B Reported Frequencies of National Death Penalty Policy, 1980 to 2001 213
App. C Death Row and Execution Statistics 227
App. D New Survey Analysis Materials 229
App. E Justified Killings by Citizens and Police, by State 237
App. F Review of Death Penalty Exoneration Data from the Death Penalty Information Center 241
References 243
Index 251
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