The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst

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Overview

For twelve years Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor, wandered freely inside Lorton Central Prison, armed only with cigarettes and a tape recorder. The Death of Punishment tests legal philosophy against the reality and wisdom of street criminals and their guards.  Some killers’ poignant circumstances should lead us to mercy; others show clearly why they should die. After thousands of hours over twenty-five years inside maximum security prisons and on death rows in seven states, the history and ...

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The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst

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Overview

For twelve years Robert Blecker, a criminal law professor, wandered freely inside Lorton Central Prison, armed only with cigarettes and a tape recorder. The Death of Punishment tests legal philosophy against the reality and wisdom of street criminals and their guards.  Some killers’ poignant circumstances should lead us to mercy; others show clearly why they should die. After thousands of hours over twenty-five years inside maximum security prisons and on death rows in seven states, the history and philosophy professor exposes the perversity of justice: Inside prison, ironically, it’s nobody’s job to punish. Thus the worst criminals often live the best lives.

The Death of Punishment challenges the reader to refine deeply held beliefs on life and death as punishment that flare up with every news story of a heinous crime. It argues that society must redesign life and death in prison to make the punishment more nearly fit the crime. It closes with the final irony: If we make prison the punishment it should be, we may well abolish the very death penalty justice now requires.

 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/23/2013
Opponents of capital punishment will find this treatise unsettling, if not outright maddening. Blecker, a professor at New York Law School, makes his case for an ethics of retributive punishment—a proportional “eye for an eye”—but ends up getting bogged down in tangential, and occasionally disingenuous, arguments about the current state of the criminal justice system. Blecker notes discrepancies in treatment between “the worst of the worst” and others serving life, or even death sentences, demonstrating that life without parole is not always the harsh sentence many assume. But Blecker is dismissive of abolitionists’ criticisms, even stating that it’s worth the risk of executing the innocent in the pursuit of “the near certainty of justice.” His proposal for Permanent Punitive Segregation—a sentence that would deprive the worst of the worst any pleasures in order to make their time behind bars oppressive—is one that Connecticut has adopted and that other jurisdictions would do well to consider, he says. Blecker’s potentially sympathetic argument about the merits of retributive punishment for mankind’s “monsters” gets lost amid his continual attempts repudiate those who think otherwise. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“An informative and often gripping read…Blecker's descriptions of life and leisure for brutal killers will move many to outrage.” –RealClearPolitics

“Blecker’s argument that prison needs to be more punishing is thought-provoking. Also fascinating is the way in which the author’s interactions with prisoners force him to confront his own beliefs…Blecker has shown us that the problem of how a civilized society deals with monstrous behaviour is as difficult as ever.” —Asia Times

“Written in a breezy, conversational style, the [book] contains Blecker’s commentary about the administration of punishment and his conversations with prisoners about it. This is a valuable addition to the literature, written for a popular audience.”—Library Journal

"Arresting fusion of memoir and jeremiad, arguing for a punitive approach toward the worst perpetrators of social violence, amid a general overhaul of attitudes toward criminality... While many will dismiss his viewpoint, Blecker presents a strong case with legalistic rigor on some of the darkest questions facing society." —Kirkus Reviews

"A truly remarkable and deeply moral book — an eloquent, unsparing, often counterintuitive, and sometimes painful meditation on why, whom, and how a decent society should decide to punish, and what those questions can teach us about universal truths of morality and justice. A philosophically and legally sophisticated page-turner is a rare thing to behold, but Robert Blecker has produced just that. If you think you already know what you believe about the death penalty, think again and read this book. If you care deeply about questions of right and wrong, read it twice." —Laurence H. Tribe, University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School, and author of The Invisible Constitution and American Constitutional Law

"Robert Blecker is probably the most articulate death penalty supporter around, and easily the most honest. His argument is one that any death penalty supporter will identify with, but more importantly, it's one any opponent must answer. —David Dow, founder of Texas Innocence Network, author of Autobiography of an Execution

"A seamless blend of the writings of the Ancients, modern law and practice, and rich personal insights, The Death of Punishment is a beautifully written, passionate, principled, and provocative exploration of issues that nestle at the heart of the meaning of justice.  This important volume demands the attention of friends and foes of capital punishment alike, and of anyone willing to grapple seriously with questions that are at once timeless and timely." —James R. Acker, Distinguished Teaching Professor, University at Albany, Editor of America’s Experiment with Capital Punishment

"A fascinating tour behind the walls of prisons and through the minds of murderers.   Along the way, Blecker demonstrates why life in prison is not enough punishment for the worst of the worst". —Kent Scheidegger, Legal Director, The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

"A remarkable book—eloquent, passionately argued, and disturbing in its clarion call for more punishment in prison and more pain in the death house.  No one can read this book and not be deeply affected by it. Serious students of crime and punishment must face and respond

to Blecker’s provocative and engaging work." —Robert Johnson, Professor of Justice, Law and Society, American University, Author of Death Work

"A refreshing source of intellectual honesty in his treatment of punishment in America, Blecker has performed a public service by forcing Americans to confront that for many of the most hardened offenders, hard time is anything but." —Michael Welner, M.D., Founder & Chairman, The Forensic Panel, Creator of the Depravity Scale

 

"Blecker is a fearless iconoclast, whose remarkable intellect has taken him places most avoid ever treading. This truly gripping and very personal journey to seek justice spans 3000 years of history and

philosophy. A fascinating journey that will challenge thinking readers to re-examine their concept of true justice." —Joshua Marquis, elected District Attorney of Astoria, Oregon, co-author of Debating the Death Penalty

 

Library Journal
10/15/2013
Unlike a lot of recent death penalty literature, this title is anecdotal and pro-capital punishment. Blecker (law, New York Law Sch.) enthusiastically supports the death penalty and generally more rigorous punishment for serious offenders. The book is based on the author's visits and interviews with prisoners and correctional officials in the District of Columbia and U.S. states. Written in a breezy, conversational style, the work contains Blecker's commentary about the administration of punishment and his conversations with prisoners about it. An appendix offers brief arguments against the death penalty and one-paragraph rebuttals. Reading this in conjunction with Evan J. Mandery's recent, outstanding title A Wild Justice illustrates both the high (Supreme Court, capital appellate lawyers) and low (correctional officials, police, prisoners) views of the issue. While the material is worthwhile, Blecker fails to address how he would ensure the even application of the death penalty across the country. The book provides a model death penalty and permanent punitive segregation statute in the appendix but does not fully address the controversy over the effectiveness of the punishment as a deterrent. VERDICT For all collections. This is a valuable addition to the literature, written for a popular audience.—Harry Charles, St. Louis
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-28
Arresting fusion of memoir and jeremiad, arguing for a punitive approach toward the worst perpetrators of social violence, amid a general overhaul of attitudes toward criminality. Blecker (New York Law School), subject of the aptly titled documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, terms himself a "retributivist," one who advocates "relating a criminal's moral blameworthiness to the punishment he deserves." He believes that in the morass of contradictory arguments regarding crime and violence since the Supreme Court's 1972 Furman decision invalidating state death penalty laws as inconsistent, we have forgotten that when the most depraved pay the most severe penalties, the social contract is strengthened. Blecker spent 12 years interviewing imprisoned murderers near Washington, D.C., and he shows them a surprising degree of empathy: "Searching for genuine remorse among convicted killers these decades, I found it rare but real." He believes such popular legal distinctions as "felony murder" have made incoherent notions of culpability, so that a drug murder may be regarded similarly as the actions of sadistic serial killers or rapists who murder their victims. While he respects the views of death penalty abolitionists, the author repeatedly counters their arguments with real-world examples concerning both horrific crimes and the disturbing observation that the most vicious criminals often have the most privileged circumstances in prison, the scary sound of "life without parole" notwithstanding. Given that he recognizes that abolitionists are gaining ground in many states, he advocates for "permanent punitive segregation," "a more restrictive quality of life inside…a perpetually unpleasant punishment of life." Blecker is unapologetic regarding his determination to avoid sophistry in considering the context of social violence. While fascinated by the "street code" of the career criminals he met, he feels bottomless contempt for the likes of mass murderers Anders Breivik and James Holmes. While many will dismiss his viewpoint, Blecker presents a strong case with legalistic rigor on some of the darkest questions facing society.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781137278562
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 11/19/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 356,186
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.48 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Blecker

Robert Blecker is a professor at New York Law School, a nationally known expert on the death penalty, and the subject of the documentary "Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead."  He formerly prosecuted corruption in New York's criminal justice system as a Special Assistant Attorney General and has been the sole keynote speaker supporting the death penalty at several major national and international conferences.  A post-graduate Harvard fellow in Law and Humanities, Blecker wrote a stage play "Vote NO!"  which premiered at the Kennedy Center.  Profiled by the New York Times and Washington Post, the subject of a USA Today cover story, and recently featured on ABC Nightline,  Blecker frequently comments for national media, including the New York Times, PBS, CNN and BBC World News.  He lives in New York.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2013

    Robert Blecker makes you think.  And he makes you challenge long

    Robert Blecker makes you think.  And he makes you challenge long-held assumptions.  Among the most widespread and erroneous misperceptions is that prison is a “living hell” for criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes.  It is not, according to the extensive first-hand research Blecker has conducted over the past 25 years.
    Blecker is a professor at New York Law School – and former Special Prosecutor –who has spent hundreds of hours inside America’s most notorious prisons.  He has been given access to death rows and cell-blocks where the “worst-of-the-worst” have regular access to private television sets, craft rooms, rock-and-roll studios, and air conditioned gyms.  And perhaps most surprisingly, many of the convicted killers-and-rapists have opened up to him.  So have their guards and prison wardens.
    This is a fascinating story well told. Blecker, who was the subject of a 2009 documentary entitled, “Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead” is widely recognized as the nation’s most thoughtful, articulate “retributivist” – and proponent of the death penalty. 
    It is clear as one reads this book Blecker is not trying to be provocative for the sake of being provocative. The story is far more philosophical than political.  And it is dramatic. The stories Blecker relates – from prisoners, prison officials, and what he has seen first-hand – are fascinating and well-told.
    I suspect Blecker’s objective is only partly to get people to agree with him.  His willingness to engage the leading “abolitionists” – those opposed to the death penalty for any reason – is well documented.  Instead, I’m convinced Blecker wants his readers to think.  And to that end, Bleckers succeeds admirably.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2013

    The book is an extended exposition of the death penalty in the f

    The book is an extended exposition of the death penalty in the form of a memoir. Robert Blecker, a professor of Constitutional and criminal law at New York University, traces his decades long quest to understand his retributivist beliefs concerning convicted perpetrators of vicious, often multiple murders. For prospective readers like me, I needed to be reminded that retributivism is an approach to crime and punishment aspiring to make the punishment fit the crime, up to and including a painful if quick death for "the worst of the worst" murders.
    Billy Crystal, the popular comedic actor and promoter of liberal Democratic causes, states in his new memoir that aging has influenced him to become more politically conservative. He is almost apologetic in describing his revulsion at the thought of remorseless serial killer Richard Speck partying in prison as his punishment for the systematic torture, rape, and murders of eight student nurses in Chicago. Speck died of natural causes in prison, famously mocking his victims and society in a widely viewed video. Crystal takes affront at the thought of society coddling such a monstrous person for so long. And the affront has apparently worn on Crystal. Speck passed away in 1991. Boston's popular and unabashedly liberal mayor Thomas Menino has gone on the record as supporting the death penalty for the Marathon bombers. Such an approach would have to be in a federal jurisdiction, for Menino and many Massachusetts citizens have abolished the death penalty in their own state. While an entertainer and a politician only express such retributivist views under self-mocking cover of senility or as a lame-duck politician, maybe it is high time to examine seriously the arguments put forth by retributivists in favor of the death penalty. Robert Blecker does just that in "The Death of Punishment."
    I found the memoir format compelling for a topic of this seriousness and complexity. While this could have devolved into an exercise in self-absorption for a relatively rare species amongst the legal profession in recent years - a tireless advocate in favor of the death penalty - Blecker's obsessive quest to understand his own beliefs, and to seek out their historical and philosophical roots, and test them in extensive travels among notorious Death Rows and in deep interviews with hardened and scary convicts, combine to invite the reader into a little known world. You will explore your own beliefs in following Robert Blecker's decades long quest for justice for "the worst of the worst."
    I found Blecker's voice compelling. He is adept at infusing drama and interest into a topic that is often characterized by sloganeering, political stereotyping, or dry legal discourse. And Blecker is an excellent writer. I have gotten to know him personally in unrelated contexts of American Revolutionary history and playwriting. In these and this new book on capital punishment, his genuineness, meticulousness, and intelligence are on full display. The memoir renders subtleties of this topic accessible to a very broad audience, while a legalistic approach could have drained the subject of its inherent emotionality and consigned it to a narrow audience of lawyers.
    I suspect that law students and those opposed to the death penalty will also find much of interest and value. An Appendix provides a crib sheet of the chief arguments for and against the death penalty. Another indexes landmark court cases that have shaped an increasingly abolitionist approach to the death penalty in the U.S.
    It is worth mentioning a few things the reader will not find in this book. Statistical analyses on either side of this issue are conspicuously absent, keeping in line with the memoir and anecdotal nature of most of its content. It is not (thank goodness for the general reader) a tome full of legalisms and dryly reported court cases and legal pronouncements. You will not find eloquent expositions in favor of abolishing the death penalty. In fact, Blecker's book is intended as a counterpoint to abolitionism.
    Blecker believes that "crud deserves crud" among his rogues' gallery of convicted capital murderers. I was surprised that Sigmund Freund was not among numerous authorities and philosophers from whom a younger Blecker sought to anchor his beliefs. The finding of Hershey bars among the many Death Row inmate privileges that Blecker finds offensive, had me wondering about the author's psycho-social development. Just why did that brown chocolate bar induce Blecker to feel dirty and defiled? In any case, Blecker's quest for justice exceeds the `eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" of literal biblical retribution. Reading in between the lines, the author seems to feel personally defiled, and society as a whole besmirched, by the continued life of incorrigible criminals who have committed unspeakable crimes.
    Blecker is not a uni-dimensional advocate in favor of the death penalty. He argues at length that mandatory felony capital murder convictions for unwitting accomplices to unintended murders, in robberies gone awry for example, is too severe a punishment and is over-used. "Let the punishment fit the crime' mantra of retributivism can mean lesser penalties in some situations.
    This self-proclaimed volunteer executioner reports compellingly on real, current conditions on Death Rows in a number of states, versus hollow polemics falsely declaring them a living hell, and seeks out and empathizes with several high profile extreme murderers. Some of this information is not readily available anywhere else.
    Presenting this material as memoir may be an emerging sub-genre. Susannah Sheffer's "Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys" [Vanderbilt University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-8265-1911-5] presents anecdotal interviews with a score of anti-death penalty lawyers, focusing on their social and emotional challenges. Unlike Blecker's memoir, identities of the subjects are masked, perhaps limiting Sheffer's potential value as quasi-academic source for changing opinions about capital punishment over time. While Blecker's approach on the other end of the spectrum of opinion is also anecdotal, people, places, and footnotes are faithfully recorded and invite independent evaluation.
    Overall "The Death of Punishment" is a compelling read on several levels - as retributivist exposition, personal memoir, legal overview, and reporting on current Death Row conditions. You will love Robert Blecker, hate him, or be left scratching you head after reading his latest book. Any way you consider it, his is a compelling voice applied to an important and controversial subject. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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