Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition

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Overview

The U.S. death penalty is a peculiar institution, and a uniquely American one. Despite its comprehensive abolition elsewhere in the Western world, capital punishment continues in dozens of American states– a fact that is frequently discussed but rarely understood. The same puzzlement surrounds the peculiar form that American capital punishment now takes, with its uneven application, its seemingly endless delays, and the uncertainty of its ever being carried out in individual cases, none of which seem conducive to effective crime control or criminal justice. In a brilliantly provocative study, David Garland explains this tenacity and shows how death penalty practice has come to bear the distinctive hallmarks of America’s political institutions and cultural conflicts.

America’s radical federalism and local democracy, as well as its legacy of violence and racism, account for our divergence from the rest of the West. Whereas the elites of other nations were able to impose nationwide abolition from above despite public objections, American elites are unable– and unwilling– to end a punishment that has the support of local majorities and a storied place in popular culture.

In the course of hundreds of decisions, federal courts sought to rationalize and civilize an institution that too often resembled a lynching, producing layers of legal process but also delays and reversals. Yet the Supreme Court insists that the issue is to be decided by local political actors and public opinion. So the death penalty continues to respond to popular will, enhancing the power of criminal justice professionals, providing drama for the media, and bringing pleasure to a public audience who consumes its chilling tales.

Garland brings a new clarity to our understanding of this peculiar institution– and a new challenge to supporters and opponents alike.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books

Some of [Garland's] eminently readable prose reminds me of Alexis de Tocqueville's nineteenth-century narrative about his visit to America; it has the objective, thought-provoking quality of an astute observer rather than that of an interested participant in American politics...In his view, an important reason Americans retain capital punishment is their fascination with death. While neither the glamour nor the gore that used to attend public executions remains today, he observes, capital cases still generate extensive commentary about victims' deaths and potential deaths of defendants. Great works of literature, like best-selling paperbacks, attract readers by discussing killings and revenge. Garland suggests that the popularity of the mystery story is part of the culture that keeps capital punishment alive...While he has studiously avoided stating conclusions about the morality, wisdom, or constitutionality of capital punishment, Garland's empirical analysis speaks to all three...I commend Peculiar Institution to participants in the political process.
— John Paul Stevens

New Republic online

[A] magisterial account of the origins, the development, and the transformation of capital punishment.
— Marie Gottschalk

Texas Observer

[Garland] makes a convincing case that lynching is a key thread that shapes the American death penalty. Execution-night rallies, news stories that emphasize victims' families and a legal system that lets county officials and local juries set the wheels of death in motion all contain echoes of the mob.
— Rachel Proctor May

America

[Garland] aims to deepen our understanding of why we still have a death penalty when nations toward whom we feel most kindred do not. In the tradition of de Toqueville, Dickens, Chesterton and Gunnar Myrdal, Garland, who hails from the Scottish Lowlands, casts the discerning eye of the outsider on us. And to compelling result.
— Kevin Doyle

Times Literary Supplement

How is it that the USA alone among Western societies clings to such barbarity? David Garland's Peculiar Institution—the evocation of the stain of slavery is quite deliberate—provides a deeply thoughtful and original explanation of this phenomenon. Subtle and provocative, it deserves a wide audience.
— Andrew Scull

Taipei Times

A magnificently thorough and even-handed book on the death penalty in modern America.
— Bradley Winterton

Austin Sarat
Peculiar Institution tells a fascinating and important story that illuminates why the death penalty is so problematic and yet so well suited to American practices.
Stuart Banner
Peculiar Institution provides the best explanation I have ever read as to why the United States, alone among western democracies, retains the death penalty, and why we have the odd system we do, in which a very small percentage of the people sentenced to death are actually executed.
Anthony G. Amsterdam
This is indispensable reading for students of criminal justice, race, and American culture, for lawyers and judges in the pathways of death, and for all who want to understand why our country can neither put capital punishment to any good use nor put an end to it.
Boston Globe - Kenneth J. Cooper
Why does the United States, alone among Western democracies, still have the death penalty? It's not a new question, but David Garland provides fresh answers from a multilayered analysis...The title hints at the most provocative part of Garland's answer. In American history, the "peculiar institution" is slavery. Anyone who thinks its vestiges were wiped out by the Emancipation Proclamation or civil rights laws should read this book and think again.
New York Review of Books - John Paul Stevens
Some of [Garland's] eminently readable prose reminds me of Alexis de Tocqueville's nineteenth-century narrative about his visit to America; it has the objective, thought-provoking quality of an astute observer rather than that of an interested participant in American politics...In his view, an important reason Americans retain capital punishment is their fascination with death. While neither the glamour nor the gore that used to attend public executions remains today, he observes, capital cases still generate extensive commentary about victims' deaths and potential deaths of defendants. Great works of literature, like best-selling paperbacks, attract readers by discussing killings and revenge. Garland suggests that the popularity of the mystery story is part of the culture that keeps capital punishment alive...While he has studiously avoided stating conclusions about the morality, wisdom, or constitutionality of capital punishment, Garland's empirical analysis speaks to all three...I commend Peculiar Institution to participants in the political process.
New Republic online - Marie Gottschalk
[A] magisterial account of the origins, the development, and the transformation of capital punishment.
Texas Observer - Rachel Proctor May
[Garland] makes a convincing case that lynching is a key thread that shapes the American death penalty. Execution-night rallies, news stories that emphasize victims' families and a legal system that lets county officials and local juries set the wheels of death in motion all contain echoes of the mob.
America - Kevin Doyle
[Garland] aims to deepen our understanding of why we still have a death penalty when nations toward whom we feel most kindred do not. In the tradition of de Toqueville, Dickens, Chesterton and Gunnar Myrdal, Garland, who hails from the Scottish Lowlands, casts the discerning eye of the outsider on us. And to compelling result.
Times Literary Supplement - Nicola Lacey
In Peculiar Institution, David Garland brings a distinctive approach to explaining why the United States stands alone in retaining capital punishment...Instead of asking why America bucked the Western trend towards abolition, Garland sets out to discover what made abolition possible for other countries. By putting the rise and (gradual) fall of capital punishment in a broad historical and comparative perspective, he is able to develop a subtle account of the changing forms and functions of capital punishment over time and of its relationship to the formation of states...Garland's readable book is a major contribution to our understanding not only of capital punishment in America, but also of the relationship between punishment, state and society. His insistence on the applicability of a general thesis to this peculiar case, and his careful illustration of the interaction between cultural and structural variables are particularly impressive; as is his deft handling of the analogies and disanalogies between capital punishment and lynching (an image which has featured prominently in protests at [Troy] Davis's execution). Peculiar Institution opens up a large agenda for comparative research both within and beyond the United States, helping us to understand why—however widespread the criticism of Davis's execution, and however substantial the doubts about his guilt—capital punishment in America is likely to survive.
Times Literary Supplement - Andrew Scull
How is it that the USA alone among Western societies clings to such barbarity? David Garland's Peculiar Institution—the evocation of the stain of slavery is quite deliberate—provides a deeply thoughtful and original explanation of this phenomenon. Subtle and provocative, it deserves a wide audience.
Taipei Times - Bradley Winterton
A magnificently thorough and even-handed book on the death penalty in modern America.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674066106
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/22/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 605,753
  • Product dimensions: 8.60 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David Garland is Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law and Professor of Sociology at New York University.

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