Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in America

Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in America

by John D. Bessler
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

This provocative book provides a comprehensive history of executions in the United States from colonial days to the present. Framing his analysis within the context of the politics of capital punishment and the role of the media in the death penalty debate, author John Bessler begins by examining the transition from crowded public hangings in town squares to private… See more details below

Overview

This provocative book provides a comprehensive history of executions in the United States from colonial days to the present. Framing his analysis within the context of the politics of capital punishment and the role of the media in the death penalty debate, author John Bessler begins by examining the transition from crowded public hangings in town squares to private executions behind prison walls. He then explores the origins and legislative rationales that led to statutory provisions mandating private, nighttime executions. Against this historical background, Bessler reviews changing public opinions concerning capital punishment, analyzes recent court decisions, and considers how politicians manipulate the death penalty as a get-tough-on-crime measure. Concluding with a penetrating discussion of recent attempts to televise executions, he addresses the constitutionality of barring cameras and illuminates both sides of the debate over public access to executions. Bessler convincingly argues that private execution laws shield Americans from the reality of the death penalty and prevent them from making informed judgments about the morality of capital punishment.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Over the last 100 years or so, executions in the U.S. have moved from the public square in front of huge daytime crowds to private killing chambers with few witnesses in the middle of the night. In his first book, attorney Bessler documents this shift with a lawyer's thoroughness. A little over half of the book focuses on 19th-century laws and trials and while there are plenty of interesting anecdotes and tidbitsbotched executions, the role of phrenology, gag laws aimed to preventing newspapers from reporting on executions, etc.it suffers from a numbing redundancy as Bessler goes through state after state comparing statues and court rulings. The final two chapters are refreshingly different, as he argues convincingly for reform of U.S. execution laws: "elected prosecutors who seek death sentences and judges and jurors who hand them out must be required to pull the switches"; "Executions must be televised"; "no longer can jurors who oppose the death penalty be excluded from jury service." Bessler contends that people who say they favor capital punishment are uninformed about it; the more they know the less they'll want it. To this end he debunks common death penalty "myths" and calls persuasively for a return to openness and accountability. Bessler rounds out the book with copious notes and an appendix listing 313 executions carried out between 1977 and 1995 arranged by time of execution: some 160 took place between midnight and 1 a.m. The seven illustrations do not mitigate the volume's unfortunately high price. (Oct.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
Public executions were once a fixture of American society, explains the author of this well-researched history of capital punishment in the United States. It was commonplace for the condemned to be hanged in the public commons in full view of a boisterous crowd. But by the 1820s, attitudes had changed. Rather than ceasing executions, the lawmakers moved them inside the prisons where, to this day, they are carried out with few witnesses. Bressler, an authority on constitutional law, contends that these private executions, usually carried out after midnight, shield Americans from the reality of the death penalty. He argues that executions should be televised so that they would be as public as in the old days. He feels that with a clear view of state-sanctioned killings, people would perhaps have a different attitude about them. This chilling and well-argued work is highly recommended for crime collections.Frances O. Sandiford, Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, N.Y.
Kirkus Reviews
A lawyer argues that Americans do not know enough about how death sentences are carried out and that the way to learn about them is to let TV cameras into the execution chamber.

As the title indicates, executions usually take place between midnight and sunrise, before a small number of witnesses. This, says Bessler, who has assisted in the pro bono representation of four death-row inmates, largely accounts for declining interest in this society's most solemn punishment. It allows us to keep out of sight and out of mind the more gruesome aspects of execution, especially when the process goes awry. Also, more insidiously, it allows us—from politicians who endorse the death penalty as a way of seeming tough on crime to jurors who sentence a criminal to death—to evade a sense of responsibility for taking another's life. To allow better- informed public debate on the issue, he argues, we should be able to see executions on television, which delivers "unfiltered images" and "objectively record[s]" what is before the cameras—claims that are astonishingly naive. The history of public executions, private executions, and related legislation and court cases (given, at some points, in extraneous detail) suggests that there is no way of reliably predicting our response to such telecasts. Some viewers are likely to be horrified, some outraged, and some entertained. Moreover, neither proponents nor opponents of the death penalty can be entirely certain such exposure will swell their ranks. Regardless, says Bessler, let people see what goes on.

Bessler is convincing when he argues that we need more light on the subject of the death penalty, but he fails to make a case that the flickering TV screen will cast more light than heat.

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781555533571
Publisher:
Northeastern University Press
Publication date:
04/02/1998
Pages:
319
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >