The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

by Franklin E. Zimring

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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…  See more details below


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.
From the Publisher
"Franklin Zimring, one of America's leading criminologists, has managed to rise above the cacophony to write a thought-provoking and genuinely original book which deserves to become a classic."—The Economist

"Thought-provoking, well-founded ammunition for the endless debate over capital punishment."—Kirkus Reviews

"Zimring is doing more than making a case for or against; he's presenting an impressive array of facts, suggesting that the U.S. would be 'a better nation' if it exorcised those vigilante values."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Includes a sharp, sensitive discussion of the political and cultural forces shaping contemporary attitudes toward the death penalty, along with hard data about executions, a cogent explanation of the capital process and an account of successful efforts to abolish the death penalty in Europe."—Wendy Kaminer, American Prospect

"Zimring does an great public service in examining the United States' retention of a primitive and brutal punishment long after it was abandoned by other developed nations. This book will help insure that the inevitable abandonment of capital punishment by the United States is not delayed for another generation."—Stephen Bright Director, Southern Center for Human Rights

"Frank Zimring's book will revolutionize how we understand the death penalty in the United States. Why, Zimring asks, does capital punishment persist in America, almost uniquely among established democracies, despite entrenched unfairness and the virtual inevitability of error? His original and provocative answer is America's vigilante tradition. Like vigilante action, the death penalty suffers from the biases of the dominant social group and the unwarranted assumption that the guilty have been correctly identified. Highlighting this uncomfortable comparison offers a promising new approach for those committed to ending this inhumane institution of American life."—Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

"Frank Zimring's new book makes a major contribution to understanding the present situation of the death penalty in the United States and to predicting what lies ahead. Central to his analysis is his judgment that a 'fundamental value conflict' lies at the root of the struggle: Will America's frontier 'vigilante values' that support our death penalty practices survive their collision with our attachment to 'due process' values? Written in his characteristically lively style, this provocative and completely original work has much to teach both defenders and opponents of capital punishment."—Hugo Adam Bedau, author of The Death Penalty in America

"Just when you thought there was nothing new to say about capital punishment, one of America's preeminent criminal justice scholars proves you wrong. Why did democratic European governments abolish the death penalty in the teeth of popular opinion—and only later conclude that capital punishment was a human rights violation? When did the principal justification for American capital punishment shift from protecting the public to 'closure' for victims' families? What aspects of our culture explain America's distinctive attachment to the death penalty and our persistent ambivalence about it? What would it take to bring capital punishment in America to an end? Examining past and present, practice and politics, patterns and paradoxes, The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment provides striking answers to these questions."—Al Alschuler, author of Law without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes

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Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Studies in Crime and Public Policy
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

Franklin E. Zimring is the William G. Simon Professor of Law and Chair of the Criminal Justice Research Program at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Crime Is Not the Problem and American Youth Violence.

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