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Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty

Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty

4.2 5
by Scott Turow

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A gripping examination of the case for and against capital punishment by a respected criminal lawyer and celebrated novelist. In the words of Harvard Law Professor, Laurence H. Tribe--"Ultimate Punishment is the ultimate statement about the death penalty: to read it is to understand why law alone cannot make us whole."

As a respected criminal lawyer,


A gripping examination of the case for and against capital punishment by a respected criminal lawyer and celebrated novelist. In the words of Harvard Law Professor, Laurence H. Tribe--"Ultimate Punishment is the ultimate statement about the death penalty: to read it is to understand why law alone cannot make us whole."

As a respected criminal lawyer, Scott Turow has been involved with the death penalty for more than a decade, including successfully representing two different men convicted in death-penalty prosecutions. In this vivid account of how his views on the death penalty have evolved, Turow describes his own experiences with capital punishment from his days as an impassioned young prosecutor to his recent service on the Illinois commission which investigated the administration of the death penalty and influenced Governor George Ryan's unprecedented commutation of the sentences of 164 death row inmates on his last day in office. Telling the powerful stories behind the statistics, as he moves from the Governor's Mansion to Illinois's state-of-the art "super-max" prison and the execution chamber, Ultimate Punishment has all the drama and intellectual substance of Turow's bestselling fiction.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
As one who has long wrestled with this issue, and who as an editorialist many years ago from time to time had to do that wrestling in public, I regard this as the most convincing, level-headed analysis of it I have encountered.—Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
Is there anything new to say about whether the death penalty should be abolished? It turns out there is. Bestselling author Turow (Reversible Errors) has some useful insights into this fiercely debated subject, based on his experiences as a prosecutor and, in his postprosecutorial years, working on behalf of death-row inmates, and his two years on Illinois's Commission on Capital Punishment, charged by the former Gov. George Ryan with examining how the death penalty might be more fairly administered. This is a sober and elegantly concise examination of a complex, fraught topic by an admitted "agnostic." His views veering one way and then the other, Turow shares his back-and-forth reasoning as he carefully discusses each issue, from the possible execution of an innocent person (a serious danger) to whether execution is a deterrent (it's not). Perhaps most illuminating are Turow's thoughts on victims' rights (which he says must be weighed against the needs of the community); on what to do with "the worst of the worst" (he visits a maximum security prison to meet multiple-murderer Henry Brison, who, Turow says, "most closely resembles... Hannibal Lecter"); and the question of what he calls "moral proportion," the notion that execution is meant to restore moral balance, which, he says, requires an "unfailingly accurate" system of justice. This measured weighing of the facts will be most valuable to those who, like Turow, are on the fence-they will find an invaluable, objective look at both sides of this critical but highly charged debate. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Writing from the perspective of a former prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, appellant attorney, and member of the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment, Turow examines various aspects and pros and cons of capital punishment. Reviewing the history of the death penalty, victims' feelings toward defendants, statistics, and examples of how the death penalty has been applied to specific cases in Illinois, the author ultimately shares his final stand on the question, "Is the death penalty ever justified?" Turow provides an excellent reading with an expressive, accent-free voice and distinct speech. Useful for law, debate, political science, and ethics students and for those interested in capital punishment or the Illinois criminal justice system. Recommended for all libraries.-Laurie Selwyn, Grayson Cty. Law Lib., Sherman, TX Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sober thoughts on capital punishment. Over his years as a prosecutor, bestselling novelist Turow (Reversible Errors, 2002, etc.) evolved from holding Aquarian views on human nature to holding Hobbesian ones. Still, when it came to the death penalty, he says in this brief collection of ruminations, he knew the cautionary lessons and considered himself an agnostic on the issue. But in 2000, when the governor of Illinois appointed a commission, including Turow, to investigate the state’s capital-justice system, it was a moment of truth: "No more dodging my conscience, no more mouthing liberal pieties while secretly hoping some conservative showed up to talk hard-nosed realities." Turow now had to ask himself about the goals of such punishment, whether some individuals were perdurably evil and what kind of power the government should be allowed to wield. On a practical level, he found much wanting in the Illinois system: that confessions no longer had the weight they once did (especially when beaten out of suspects); that "emotional momentum" to solve particularly repellent crimes can result in fastening onto the first suspect and chewing away long after the bone has gone cold; that the creeping influence of victims’ rights obscured the character of the defendant and the crime involved; and that deterrence simply was not a compelling rationale. Philosophically, Turow hesitates over the question of moral proportions, the idea that the punishment of a crime be an unequivocal statement of moral order. As for Illinois, he found its capital-justice system sprawling and arbitrary, without logic as to the selections for execution, and lacking a guiding hand of reason. The commission’srecommendations—specific ones, keeping the option of death to a minimum—were ignored by the get-tough political agenda of the new governor. Well-presented, if dry and hardly original. In a handful of sorry examples from Illinois, Turow's storytelling talents shine.
From the Publisher

“This slender but closely argued book is an account of Turow's path to a 'no' vote on capital punishment....As one who has long wrestled with this issue, and who as an editorialist many years ago from time to time had to do that wrestling in public, I regard this as the most convincing, levelheaded analysis of it I have encountered.” —The Washington Post

“Concise and incisive...As one would expect from a writer of Turow's gifts, Ultimate Punishment makes for compelling and thoughtful reading.” —Chicago Tribune

“Turow's brief narrative illuminates two faces of the death penalty in the United States. Each, as he suggests, should give us serious pause....[Ultimate Punishment is] engaging, and, more important, it speaks to an audience not always considered by death penalty opponents: people, like Turow himself, for whom capital punishment has a strong visceral appeal. Turow does not minimize either the nature of the crimes or the deep anger they evoke in the people forced to reckon with them. He gets it. He will thus be read with sympathy by readers open to arguments against capital punishment but alienated by what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the indifference of abolitionists to the suffering of the victims.” —Los Angeles Times

“By clearly and methodically sorting through the issues regarding the ultimate punishment, Turow has performed a public service. By turns shocking and engrossing, this book is highly recommended.” —Library Journal

Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.60(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

Law and Murder: Michelle Thompson and Jeanine Nicarico On February 3, 1984, a young woman named Michelle Thompson and a male friend, Rene Valentine, were forced at gunpoint from the car they'd just entered in a parking lot outside D. Laney's, a nightclub in Gurnee, Illinois, north of Chicago. The gunman walked Valentine a short distance, then shot him in the chest at point-blank range. When the police arrived, Michelle Thompson was gone.  

I was an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago at the time, and my oldest friend in the federal prosecutor's office, Jeremy Margolis, helped direct the FBI's search for Thompson. Initially, the case appeared to be an interstate kidnapping, which is a federal matter. Within a few days, the crime proved to be one within the province of state authorities: murder. Beaten, raped, and strangled, Thompson's body was discovered in Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, Hector Reuben Sanchez, an illiterate but ambitious factory worker and burglar, was arrested, along with an accomplice, Warren Peters, Jr., who ultimately agreed to testify against Sanchez.  

Deeply enmeshed in the case by now, Jeremy was appointed a special Assistant State's Attorney to help the local prosecutors try Sanchez in state court in Lake County, Illinois. As Jeremy prepared for trial, I spent hours listening to him describe Michelle Thompson's miserable final night. After Sanchez raped Thompson on the floor of the family room in his house, she escaped and dashed, still handcuffed and naked below the waist, through the snow to the back door of a neighbor's, where she pleaded for help. Sanchez found her there and later assuaged the neighbor by telling him that Thompson was drunk and hysterical. The pathos of the neighbor's account of the young woman being led away by Sanchez was heartbreaking. Michelle Thompson had been abused now for several hours, and she offered no further resistance. She was resigned to being tortured and degraded, and hoped only to live -- a meager, abased wish that went unfulfilled. Back in his house, Sanchez gagged Michelle Thompson with a strip of cloth, bent her over a washing machine and sodomized her, then strangled her with a nylon strap and a coat hanger. He finished the job by beating her head on the basement floor. 

In pursuing the case, the FBI had discovered that nine years earlier Sanchez had murdered his girlfriend, slashing her throat and shooting her, then escaped prosecution by threatening the witnesses. This time Jeremy and the Lake County State's Attorneys were determined that there would be no repetitions. They were seeking the death penalty. 

Through Jeremy, I followed the progress of the case closely. Late in the summer, he and Ray McKoski, then the First Assistant State's Attorney in Lake County, proceeded to trial in Waukegan, Illinois. When Sanchez was convicted and sentenced to death in September 1984, I relished their victory.

That sideline experience remained my only direct exposure to capital prosecutions until 1991, when I was asked to take on the pro bono appeal of Alejandro Hernandez. By then I was in private practice as a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal, a large national firm. I'd known of Hernandez for nearly a decade by now as a co-defendant in what the press commonly referred to as "The Case That Broke Chicago's Heart." On February 25, 1983, Patricia Nicarico, who worked as a school secretary in Naperville, a suburb outside Chicago, had returned home to discover that her front door had been kicked in and that her ten-year-old daughter, Jeanine, was missing. Two days later, the girl's body, blindfolded and otherwise clad only in a nightshirt, was found in a nearby nature preserve. She had died as the result of repeated blows to the head, administered only after she had been sexually assaulted in a number of ways. More than forty law enforcement officers joined a multi-jurisdictional task force organized to hunt down the killer, for whose capture a $10,000 reward was offered. By early 1984, the case had still not been solved, and a heated primary campaign was under way for the job of State's Attorney in DuPage County. A few days before the primary, on March 6, 1984, Alex Hernandez, Rolando Cruz, and Stephen Buckley were indicted, even though six weeks earlier the State's Attorney had said that there was insufficient evidence to indict anyone. 

James Ryan won the election and became the new DuPage County State's Attorney. (Ryan was elected Attorney General of Illinois in 1994 and served until early 2003, after losing in the November 2002 election, when he was the Republican candidate for Governor.) Ryan's new office took the case against the three defendants to trial in January 1985. The jury deadlocked on Buckley, but Hernandez and Cruz were both convicted and sentenced to death. There was no physical evidence against either of them -- no blood, semen, fingerprints, hair, fiber, or other forensic proof. The state's case consisted solely of each man's statements, a contradictory maze of mutual accusations and demonstrable falsehoods as testified to by various informants and police officers. By the time the case reached me, seven years after Hernandez and Cruz were first arrested, the Illinois Supreme Court, in 1988, had reversed the original convictions and ordered separate retrials. Cruz was convicted and sentenced to death again in April 1990. The jury hung in Hernandez's second trial, but the state put him on trial for his life a third time in May 1991. He was found guilty but sentenced to eighty years, rather than to execution. When Hernandez's trial lawyers, Mike Metnick, Jeff Urdangen, and Jane Raley, approached me, they made a straightforward pitch. Their client was innocent. I didn't believe it. I knew how the system worked. Convict an innocent man once? Not likely, but possible. Twice? Never. And even if it were true, I couldn't envision convincing an appeals court to overturn the conviction a second time. Illinois elects its state court judges, and this was a celebrated child murder. The lawyers begged me to read the brief that Larry Marshall, a renowned professor of criminal law at Northwestern University, had filed in behalf of Cruz, and to look at the transcripts of Hernandez's trials. By the time I had done this, six weeks later, I knew I had to take the case or stop calling myself a lawyer. Alex Hernandez was innocent. 

In June 1985, a few months after Hernandez and Cruz were first convicted, another little girl, Melissa Ackerman, age seven, was abducted and murdered in LaSalle County, about an hour's drive from Jeanine Nicarico's house. Both Melissa and Jeanine were kidnapped in broad daylight, carried away in blankets, sodomized, and murdered in a wooded area. A man named Brian Dugan was arrested for Melissa's murder. In the course of complex plea discussions, his lawyer said that Dugan was prepared to plead guilty not only to the Ackerman killing but to a host of other crimes, including raping and killing two more females. One of the additional women Dugan was prepared to admit he killed was a twenty-seven-year-old nurse named Donna Schnorr. The other was Jeanine Nicarico. The prosecutors from DuPage County were contacted and invited to question Dugan, through his attorney. The First Assistant, Robert Kilander, and a younger prosecutor met with Dugan's lawyer, but after returning to their office, they refused to accept Dugan's statements or to deal with him further. (Nor did anyone from the DuPage office inform the lawyers for Cruz and Hernandez that another man was prepared to admit to the murder for which their clients were then awaiting execution.
Copyright © 2003 Scott Turow

Meet the Author

Scott Turow is the world-famous author of six bestselling novels about the law, from Presumed Innocent (1987) to Reversible Errors (2002), which centers on a death. He lives with his family outside Chicago where he is a partner in the firm of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal.

Brief Biography

Chicago, Illinois
Date of Birth:
April 12, 1949
Place of Birth:
Chicago, Illinois
B.A. in English, Amherst College, 1970; M.A., Stanford University, 1974; J.D., Harvard University, 1978

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Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Legal thriller author Scott Turow served as a former federal prosecutor, a death penalty appellate lawyer, and on former Illinois Governor Ryan's Commission on Capital Punishment. Mr. Turow describes his change in attitude towards the death penalty. In this non-fiction book, the author says much of his reflections came about mostly based on his work with the commission. Their findings shocked the country, but not as much as Ryan¿s commutations of sentencing that included a convicted child serial killer.

ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT goes deep into the psychology and philosophy behind capital punishment. However, much of the writing is devoted to the shock of what was found in the Illinois system. Everyone including the most hard nosed members of the commission were stunned to learn how arbitrary the process actually is. Logic is ignored as in many cases the victims¿ rights overwhelmed the rights of the defendant (usually the first available suspect).

As a most interesting postscript, no other governor has followed Mr. Ryan¿s lead preferring to bury their heads in the sand. It is politically easier to follow the successful path of then Governor Bush of Texas that nothing is wrong. This includes the current 'get tough on killers' politics of Ryan¿s replacement. Whether you support the ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT or not, this book is worth reading. Mr. Turow raises a fundamental issue of a failed inconsistent system fed fodder by leaders acting like the mother in the Glass Menagerie by preferring to politically pretend all is well in the world.

Harriet Klausner

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