CAPITAL PUNISHMENT by Billy Wayne Sinclair


An Indictment by a Death-Row Survivor
Email this review


Uneven collection of arguments against the death penalty.

A Life in the Balance (2001), also written with his wife Jodie, chronicled Sinclair’s brutal experiences as a prisoner in the Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola. He spent nearly six years there on death row before the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972 on the grounds that it was inequitably applied. (States scrambled to come up with constitutionally acceptable death-penalty laws, and executions recommenced in 1977.) Resentenced to life without parole, Sinclair became a writer and jailhouse lawyer during his subsequent 40 years in the Louisiana prison system; he was released in 2006 and is now a paralegal in Houston. Primarily a bland, though admittedly thorough catalogue of statistics, this book is not the gripping anti–capital punishment blast one might expect from a survivor of death row. His main argument—that the death penalty is cruel and cannot be administered fairly under our legal system—will be familiar to most and unlikely to change any minds. Some of the stories ably highlight the laws’ arbitrariness and unfairness, such as the one about a death-row inmate’s lawyers who missed the deadline for a last-minute appeal due to a computer crash. But many of Sinclair’s overstated assertions may alienate more readers than they convince. While most people probably agree that murder is worse than rape, they may not be so quick to concur with the statement that “raping a child is despicable, but killing someone is far worse.” Other choices are simply odd, as when the author quotes at length from Thomas Wolfe’s 1939 novel The Web and the Rock to convey “the mindset of lynch justice.” The best sections, regrettably few, deal with the author’s personal experiences, as when he tries to convince a prisoner to plead to a life sentence rather than risk execution..

A disappointing screed that ultimately adds little to the death-penalty debate.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-55970-899-9
Page count: 264pp
Publisher: Arcade
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2009