Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in Americaby John D. Bessler
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
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.
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 usfrom politicians who endorse the death penalty as a way of seeming tough on crime to jurors who sentence a criminal to deathto 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 camerasclaims 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.
- Northeastern University Press
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)
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