The Autobiography of an Execution

The Autobiography of an Execution

by David R. Dow


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Near the beginning of The Autobiography of an Execution, David Dow lays his cards on the table. "People think that because I am against the death penalty and don't think people should be executed, that I forgive those people for what they did. Well, it isn't my place to forgive people, and if it were, I probably wouldn't. I'm a judgmental and not very forgiving guy. Just ask my wife."

It this spellbinding true crime narrative, Dow takes us inside of prisons, inside the complicated minds of judges, inside execution-administration chambers, into the lives of death row inmates (some shown to be innocent, others not) and even into his own home—where the toll of working on these gnarled and difficult cases is perhaps inevitably paid. He sheds insight onto unexpected phenomena— how even religious lawyer and justices can evince deep rooted support for putting criminals to death— and makes palpable the suspense that clings to every word and action when human lives hang in the balance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446562072
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 02/16/2011
Pages: 271
Sales rank: 384,242
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David R. Dow is professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center and an internationally recognized figure in the fight against the death penalty. He is the founder and director of the Texas Innocence Project. He lives in Houston, Texas.

What People are Saying About This

Anthony Lewis

"I have read much about capital punishment, but David Dow's book leaves all else behind.

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The Autobiography of an Execution 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 65 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mr. Dow is a committed and excellent lawyer. The passion he brings to his work is evident in this book. However, the essential elements of this book would have made an excellent long format magazine article in either, say, Esquire or Rolling Stone. The unfolding store of death row inmate "Henry" is gripping and the trials and tribulations that Mr. Dow goes through to help him is moving while teaching the reader a lot about the legal process. But Mr. Dow fills 2/3's of his book with musings about his family that have little or no relationship to the book's central theme. While his relationships with his wife and son appear top notch, the annectodes and asides about their daily lives are a distraction to the book's importance. In addition, the writing style includes the decision to omit all use of quotation marks. There is a lot of reporting of dialogue in this book and without the proper use of quotes, the reading is combersome and awkward. Not sure the benefit of this...maybe to seem "stream of conscienceness"????????
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"The Autobiography of an Execution" by David Dow is a remarkable book about a man who works as a death row attorney. The book follows the story of one particular death row inmate accused of murdering his wife and children. As the facts of the case are revealed including the shoddy handling by his previous attorneys, we begin to see how our justice system, both complex and largely impersonal, is ultimately the result of the various men and women who work in the field. These insights are paralleled by everyday occurrences in Dow's personal life. We see that his family is his foundation which keeps him grounded. Along the way we are introduced to various characters on both sides of the prison bars, revealing many complex personalities, but always with the idea of following the main story to its conclusion. Throughout the book Dow peppers us with delightful philosophical insights and nuggets of wisdom to keep us thinking, to help us understand what it is like to walk in his shoes and work with his clients. In the end one cannot help but be sobered by the experience of watching this man who, in the end, cannot save anybody, only delay the inevitable, yet these rare victories help keep him going. His love for his family is what keeps him sane in a world where the rule of law is handled like a mathematical equation yet where attorneys can sometimes make a difference. This is not a textbook about the death penalty or capital punishment - it is a narrative, and through the use of story, one not only learns about our justice system, but feels its effects on all involved. It is a glimpse into purgatory, and the resolve of a group of brave men and women to make a difference in the lives of people who deserve respect and their own dignity despite being convicted of heinous crimes. It is an important addition to the ongoing debate regarding capital punishment in the United States.
EM46 More than 1 year ago
This Book was well written and I could not put it down. Mr Dow takes you into a execution and it is as if your there and how he balances his Life. Thank-you Mr Dow for sharing!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Much has been made of the 'honesty' of this memoir given the nature of attorney-client privilege. However, Dow has written a beautiful book that balances the futility and agony of his profession and the oft forgotten wonder of the domestic life that keeps him sane and functioning. Highly recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book. Very interesting read - makes you expand your views on the subject.
realdanielrushing More than 1 year ago
This book is a great read. But don't expect it to move mountains in the way of social commentary concerning capital punishment. The memoir follows the life of Counselor Dow in both the legal and familiar arenas. He does a great job showing the intersection of these two worlds as he sees them. Often jumping from one random though to another, he ties it all together in the end and leaves the reader going "ah-ha". The book follows one main case, obviously a case that left a lasting impression of Dow, while also juggling the story lines of other cases and criminals at the same time. It almost feels like you are reading a novel, and every once and while you get commentary from the author. All in all though, it is a great read, that doesn't require too many brain cells or emotional investment. Good read for a short vacation, or road trip. I bought it on NOOK, and will not by the print version. Just not a writing that carries the kind of punch I would physically want on my bookshelf. But again, I do recommend it for a great casual read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought the reason for having a nook was that you could access the electronic version cheeper than the paper. Why would it cost more for the download than the prointed version?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If out of 100 people on death row, it turns out to be that one is innocent, that's one too many. I cried after reading this book because not only was it one of the most shocking things I'd ever read, but the author's life is directly affected by the work he does and yet he still continues to fight.
preetalina on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is really relevant right now, especially with these recent high-profile executions in Texas of people who might have been (or might be) innocent. Or at least not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In theory, there is a presumption of innocence in the American legal system, innocent until proven guilty, but in practice, it is just the opposite. Juries trust the police and the prosecutors, especially when all the jurors are middle-class white folks, as they were at Quaker's trial. They think that if someone gets arrested and goes on trial, there must be good reasons to believe that he did it. p191Our justice system is one of those things that sounds great in theory, but in execution... Well, it's a little lacking. There are so many factors that have to be in place for someone to get a "fair" trial, when that's the goal of the whole thing to begin with. Reading through this book highlighted a lot of those factors and showed how unfair a trial (and subsequent appeals) can be. I used to support the death penalty. I changed my mind when I learned how lawless the system is. If you have reservations about supporting a racist, classist, unprincipled regime, a regime where white skin is valued far more highly than dark, where prosecutors hide evidence and policemen routinely lie, where judges decide what justice requires by consulting the most recent Gallup poll, where rich people sometimes get away with murder and never end up on death row, then the death penalty system we have here in America will embarrass you to no end. p18A little history about me: I used to be adamantly for the death penalty. I often put myself in the shoes of the victims' families and would imagine how I would feel and what I would want. Thus, my support for it came from an highly emotional place, where I was for vengeance. But as the years went by and I learned more about the system, and about many cases where people were exonerated, often after they'd been in jail for years, my support started waning. The amount of things that can go wrong, mistakes that are made, and particularly the unfairness that often comes into play, make putting someone to death a huge problem. Also, justice should not be based on emotions. That is essentially what putting someone to death is. Until I met her, my focus was on the law, on why some legal rule or principal meant that my client should get a new trial. I do exhaustive research, write a powerful legal argument, and then watch no one pay it any heed. The problem with this lawyerly approach is that nobody cares about rules or principles when they're dealing with a murderer. The lawyer says that the Constitution was violated every which way, and the judge says, Yeah, but your client killed somebody, right? For all our so-called progress, the tribal vengefulness that we think of is limited to backward African countries is still how our legal system works. p138Even if you are for the death penalty, I feel that you cannot ignore all the issues that are mentioned above, which come into play in every aspect of the system.This book is written by a death penalty lawyer in, of all states, Texas. It will infuriate you and then depress you. What is interesting to me is that he used to support the death penalty and moved to the opposite side as time passes and he gained more experience. What I loved was his honesty - he does not think people should be put to death, but that doesn't mean he likes who he represents. He made the same mistake that death penalty supporters routinely make. He assumed that because I represent guys like him, I must like guys like him. He assumed that because I'm against the death penalty and don't think he should be executed, that I forgive him for what he did. Well, it isn't my place to forgive people like Green, and if it were, I probably wouldn't. I'm a judgmental and not very forgiving guy. You can ask my wife. p20The book is interspersed with glimpses into the author's life.
jenn_stringer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
David Dow manages to convey the emotions of being a death row attorney in a matter of fact unemotional way. He steps us through the legal machinery of execution and enlightens the average citizen to the bizarre legal appeals process. A must read for anyone on either side.
meggyweg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a brilliant memoir/creative nonfiction that has intensified my opposition to the death penalty. The author runs a legal aid clinic that handles death row inmates' appeals in Texas, a state notorious for its large number of executions. I knew the system was seriously flawed, but I didn't realize it was THIS bad. I was frankly horrified by what I read.There are several cases in this story, but the central case involves a man convicted of murdering his wife and children, who is facing execution in a matter of weeks. His trial lawyer was really bad and basically presented no defense at all. As the attorney works on the appeal, he discovers clear and convincing evidence that his client is innocent. But can he stop the execution? To coin a cliché, I was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next.This book qualifies as "creative nonfiction" because it's not strictly factual. The author disguised his clients and all the details of the crimes, and changed everyone's names, so that the real people involved could not be identified. He says so in the introduction to the book. There's also a useful essay in the back written by another lawyer, explaining the restrictions of attorney-client privilege and why Dow had to write the book this way.This is a frankly stunning book. I think anyone interested in the criminal justice system and the death penalty -- on both sides of the debate -- should read it.
tangledthread on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I learned of this book when David Dow was interviewed on an NPR program. As mentioned in other reviews, this is a work of creative nonfiction (memoir) in order to be within the constraints of confidentiality placed upon a legal practitioner. The author is a law professor and the litigation director at the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that represents death row inmates in Texas.The format of the book is autobiographical with the cases of several death row inmates braided together with glimpses into the author's personal life. There is one main death row defendant story in the book, a man convicted of murdering his wife and children, whom the author believes to be innocent.Through out the book the reader is given glimpses of the machinations of the death penalty process after conviction. However, from the initial arrest to the implementation of the death penalty, the author makes the reader aware of the many ways that a person's constitutional rights can be, and are, abridged by those in power. From law enforcement to Supreme Court Justice death penalty decisions can be based on issues of personal convenience or personal convictions while life in question is held at at arms length.The author stands on his convictions, but does not make himself out to be a hero. His doubts, failures, and willingness to acknowledge the smallest things as a success are revealed through the story.Like the author, I acknowledge that there is evil in the world. But I am encouraged that there is also good in the kind of work that this author and his colleagues are doing. And based on the blatant miscarriage of justice characterized in this book, I plan on staying out of Texas!
Eliz12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have no problem with the death penalty and this book did nothing to change my mind. I also found the author's style a bit irritating at times (those cozy, cutesy moments with his son, invariably filled with snippets of wisdom that read like a Hallmark card). Nonetheless, I gave this book four stars for various reasons.First, Dow did give me a great deal to consider - namely, the failure not of the justice system itself but of the men and women who function within it (I will never forget the defense attorney who fell asleep during trial).Second, while I was sometimes rubbed the wrong way by his revelations about exactly who he is (an atheist, an Obama supporter, a man who considers himself "spiritual," though without religion), I understand the reason this material was included and I have no doubt he is sincere. Most of all, I appreciate the fact that he's pretty honest about his clients, that most are guilty and that most are very creepy. Dow does get into the difficult childhoods of his clients (I didn't care), but at least he's not too sentimental about it.
TheAmpersand on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Somewhere out there, there might be a book out there that will convince death penalty advocates that the death penalty is an immoral, inefficient, capricious, and unnecessary punishment, but this isn't it. "The Autobiography of an Execution," whose author has the unenviable task of handling the appeals of Texas death row inmates who cannot afford their own counsel, is a curiously personal take on a social issue which reveals as much about its author as about the system he works in. The book provides parallel accounts of the execution of an inmate known as "Henry Quaker," whom the author believes to be innocent, and the author's own relationship with his wife and young son. While the reader gets an idea of the psychic strain Mr. Dow endures to keep these aspects of his life compartmentalized, the sections in which he describes his feelings for an interactions with his son often drift toward sentimentality. His description of his last-ditch attempts to prove Quaker's innocence and save his life fare better, offering a clear-eyed description of the execution process without becoming dry reportage. Dow has a keen eye for absurdity, perhaps developed out of sheer necessity, and he's good at describing moments in which the inmates' unpredictable, sometimes pathetic humanity butts up against a legal process that can seem simultaneously unfeeling and chaotic. Dow describes the rituals that accompany a state execution, the waiting, the last meal, the final goodbyes, with real sensitivity. Dow is well aware of his position as one of the few people who has to get his hands dirty enforcing a social policy that most people are comfortable to support from a distance, and his book's most concrete contribution to the death penalty debate might be his decision to give his readers a glimpse of his average workday. It's difficult, after all, to get too excited about the execution of an innocent man when you've got another death row inmate's case waiting for you when you return to the office. Dow describes a legal system where his clients' lives depend on the judicial decisions, and sometimes the whims, of judges and elected officials who don't seem to appreciate the gravity of the decisions they've been tasked with and aren't required to be present at the executions they authorize. Quaker's story isn't unique; Dow claims to have represented seven clients he believes were innocent of the crimes for which they were executed. If anything, Quaker's experience is representative of a slipshod, deeply dysfunctional legal process. How much the reader enjoys "Autobiography of an Execution" might ultimately depend on how they get along with its author. Dow paints himself as a prickly, complex character. He's a loner who's not afraid to let you know how much he depends on his family, a lawyer driven by an unshakable moral compass who doesn't mind engaging in endless, pointless legal maneuverings to save his clients' lives, a man dwarfed by the demands of the job he's taken on who doesn't mind letting you know that he thinks of himself as a damn good lawyer. Dow is also nothing if not forthcoming, transcribing in minute detail not just the emotional hardship faced by those in his chosen line of work but also his stray thoughts, daydreams, and doubts. "Autobiography" makes for an interesting read, if perhaps not a great book.
sallylou61 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although this is a memoir on an important topic ¿ the author is a lawyer whose clients are on death row ¿ the book is disappointing. Mr. Dow shows the capriciousness of the system, and how unlikely it is he will be able to halt the execution of most of his clients. The book primarily concerns the case of Henry Quaker (a pseudonym), a man who was executed although he was probably innocent. However, Mr. Dow keeps interrupting the story with descriptions of his own home life or with a discussion of another case.
crazybatcow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a difficult subject. It seems like Dow isn't anti-death penalty as much as he is anti-unfairness in death penalty sentencing. He argues that poor and mentally challenged people are dis-proportionately sentenced to death and that whether or not someone is actually executed has more to do with their lawyer's skills (a.k.a. money) and the political environment at the moment.He is believable.He has quite a few smaller tirades against "lazy" judges who are just in it because of who they know and who don't actually care about truth or justice. Perhaps he's right. How would we know otherwise.I liked how he covered several cases, and provided some background into his life and history, and I didn't even mind his "family life" scenes because they sorta grounded the story in reality a bit. I didn't like all the "dreams" that were detailed... what role do dreams play in a biography?
Faith2015 More than 1 year ago
Very good book for law students!!
BookAddictFL More than 1 year ago
The Autobiography of an Execution is a compelling look at death penalty cases from the perspective of a death penalty lawyer. One of the things that makes this book unique is that Dow doesn't focus on cases of the wrongly executed, which would easily gain more sympathy from readers. Instead we're shown an array of condemned men, from the inexcusably guilty to the mentally incompetent killer to the one who was, in all likelihood, innocent. Most people unfamiliar with the inner workings of our justice system would assume the appeals process is in place in order to ensure the guilt of those convicted prior to their execution. This is absolutely not the case. Appeals are about technicalities and administrative errors. They're about filing exactly the right motion, worded exactly the right way, at exactly the right time. Dow takes us along through his workdays, showing us just how broken and corrupt our justice system has become. Another aspect making this a compelling read is Dow's willingness to make it personal. He invites us into his world, letting us see how emotionally draining it is to race against the clock, only to then watch his clients die at the hands of the state. The transition between the darkness of his work and the bright light of his family is a difficult hurdle to jump over and over again. That bright light, though, is what keeps him grounded and allows him to work within such a bleak environment. When I consider the death penalty, I most often think of the men and women locked away waiting for us to kill them. I think about guilt and innocence, and the fact that executing even one innocent person is unacceptable. David Dow does a superb job of showing me the lawyer's viewpoint. Maybe looking for the innocent needle in the guilty haystack is the wrong approach to reform. If the system worked the way it was supposed to, we would have no fear of executing an innocent or a mentally retarded person. Better yet, maybe this book can serve as a lesson that a reasonable society shouldn't have the death penalty at all.
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