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David M. Shribman
William S. McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of U. S. Grant. Stephen Bright runs a tiny law center dedicated to keeping death row inmates from death's door. One is steeped in the passions of the past, the other engaged in the dramas of today.
But several years ago their paths crossed, and the result is a remarkable little book - part historical tract, part political manifesto - that examines one of the most bitter issues of contemporary life, the death penalty, with clarity. But not without passion.
McFeely - like Bright, who swiftly emerges as the principal character in this book - is an opponent of the death penalty, and on the surface ''Proximity to Death'' is the work of a political pamphleteer with a sharp eye, a sharp mind, and a sharp wit. But it is far more than that. It is a portrait of the complexities and contradictions of the modern legal system. It is an argument that life itself is more complex, more chocked with contradictions, than it is on the surface. And it is proof that death, or at least death dealt by the state, is even more so.
McFeely's story is about Bright's struggle - the struggle of an idealist and an underdog with unappealing clients, many of whom certainly committed the unspeakable crimes of which they were accused and convicted. In many ways Bright, who heads the Southern Center for Human Rights, does not contest that. He just does not believe that these convicts - men, all of them; black, all of them - should themselves die.
That viewpoint - indeed, the entire debate over capital punishment - is not new. It dates to biblical times, and probably to undocumented times before that. But ''Proximity to Death'' is compelling because of the play between the mind of a historian and the mind of a lawyer.
And because McFeely brings to this task an inviting writing style. With this opening, his prose sketch of a Georgia courthouse, the reader is hooked, and then reeled in: ''Tall and wide, with white wooden lace falling over rich red brick as its high windows point toward the bright white of the cupola crown, this is the law's palace.''
Inside these palaces of the law - there are 159 of them in Georgia alone, plus many scores in other Southern states, the general setting of this volume - the great struggle goes on: to try, to convict, to sentence. McFeely captures that struggle along with the struggle that undergirds it. ''The dry boards of a Georgia courthouse creak into life when one person - a lawyer - in defiance of a society that no longer cares, goes about the tough, unpopular work of trying to keep us from killing his client, the person sitting next to him,'' he writes.
McFeely, who now lives in Wellfleet, was invited into this world because of Bright's suspicion that a professional historian, in the role of an expert witness, might bring to light some of the unseen factors - the historical and social subtleties - that lead juries to send black men to death. McFeely's specific role is to declaim on the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, imbedded in Georgia's state flag, which stands as a symbol of slaveholders, their battles to win the independence of the Confederacy, and the Ku Klux Klan organizers and activists who rally around it.
His host in this world, Bright, lives on a peanut butter diet, hardly any money, and the oxygen of his conscience. He is the son of a Kentucky dirt farmer, who rebelled against the assumptions of his time and place. He is the master of the legal maneuver, the ingenious argument, the delaying tactic, the struggle for a new trial. Sometimes it works. He saves lives one at a time.
At the heart of this business of saving the lives of men who took the lives of others is a moral question as nettlesome as any in our society. McFeely's argument is simply stated: States should not be permitted ''to take one life in exchange for another life.'' He believes that ''jurors must deal with one death - but not by inflicting a second.''
Into this book stroll some unlikely characters, including David Kendall, the smooth lawyer who defended President Clinton in his impeachment trial in the Senate seven months ago.
Kendall was an ally of Stephen Bright's, a foot soldier in the battle to save the life of William Brooks, accused of abducting, raping, and then killing a young woman and convicted by a jury after 96 minutes' deliberation. Bright won him a new trial, and a reprieve from death. A second jury (four whites, eight blacks) finally sentenced him to life imprisonment.
But perhaps the most vivid, most memorable character in this book is Tony Amadeo, prison-educated (he quotes Aristotle and Shakespeare with ease) and guilt-ridden (for his part in two shootings). McFeely visited him in Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga., north of Atlanta. In their session, Amadeo shares the grisliest elements of his deed.
''As Tony reveals, in such graphic detail all - or nearly all - of the story of the murder, I wonder if even he hasn't hidden away from himself some of the horrors of those determinative five minutes of his life,'' McFeely writes. ''How, I ask, can he think about that man, that man's family. He can't not, is his reply: I think of them every day.'''
He will continue to do so. Bright, in a case that went to the Supreme Court, won him a life sentence.
— Boston Globe