Fourteen years of "deathwork" as a public defender appealing capital convictions in Florida have convinced Vermont Law School professor Mello (Against the Death Penalty) that the U.S. system of capital punishment is just plain evil. This blistering, well-annotated critique of a legal system "so rigged that it can't even be trusted to ensure that it is killing the right person" is an often manifesto-like explication of his recent decision to abstain from "deathwork" altogether. Writing in "a language that my mother could read" and citing poets, philosophers and musicians when his own words fail, Mello is both passionate and eloquent. When he's over the topin a single sentence that rambles for 28 pages or in the obscenities he applies to certain judgeshe's railing against the perceived injustice and perverseness he has had ample opportunity to experience up close, and which, he says, has claimed lives in error. One of his clients was executed ostensibly because Mello did not file certain claims soon enough. Another has spent 20 years on death row for, Mello explains, a crime he never committeda media expos saved his life. Far from romanticizing the defendants or their crimes, Mello keeps the focus on the system: regardless of actual guilt or innocence, convicts die, he argues, because of procedural technicalities, the performance of their attorneys or the political aspirations of governors and judges. Mello's searing, intense and personal witness forces readers to confront the seemingly faulty mechanics lurking behind the ultimate judicial process. Author tour. (Jan.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a season busy with books about the death penalty, here is an idiosyncratic, almost experimental, but authoritative personal critique of the nation's system of capital punishment.
Mello is a former postconviction counsel, representing Florida death-row inmates in challenges to their sentencechallenges often popularly thought of as "milking the system," as one judge said with reference to Ted Bundy. But Mello relentlessly demonstrates that such procedures generally unfold at a breakneck pace that understaffed counsel can barely keep up with, that delays are often the state's faultand that the Bundy case's notoriety actually made it a de facto "exception" to the due-process rule. It is astonishing how many cases Mello can cite, from his own experience, of prisoners either executed or nearly executed in flagrantly unconstitutional circumstances due to indifference, incompetence, or outright hostility from the courts, considering that he has performed a mere 14 years of "deathwork," as he calls it. However, Mello's often engagingly haphazard way of storytelling virtually ruins the two climactic accounts that introduce his decision to "conscientiously abstain" from continued work within the system, undermining the hyperbole with which, for example, he excoriates the decisions, regarding his clients, of Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, whom he calls "either stupid or malicious." Mello's own aversion to self-censorship also results in repetition; at least one episode that reads rather like score-settling; and an "apologia" for quitting deathwork startlingly announces that his reasons for doing so "are beyond the scope of this book."
For all that, death-penalty supportersand opponents, for that matterwho do not read this unique insider's account of capital punishment as a capricious and nearly broken-down system will lay themselves open to the charge that they don't know what they're talking about.
“A blistering, well-annotated critique. . . . both passionate and eloquent.” Publishers Weekly starred review
“Death-penalty supportersand opponents, for that matterwho do not read this unique insider’s account of capital punishment as a capricious and nearly broken-down system will lay themselves open to the charge that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Mello separates himself from others who have written about death row. He is visceral, not cerebral . . . One of the nation’s most passionate post-conviction lawyers.”Colman McCarthy,
"Michael Mello is a poet, a storyteller, a wordsmith, and, thank God, a lawyer. Dead Wrong is an incisive, probing examination of life, death, and the law, at once wickedly funny, heart-wrenchingly human, and surgically precise. This is a book written in blood."Mike Farrell, actor and president of California Death Penalty Focus