The death penalty is wrong because it can’t be meted out fairly, argues Dow (Law/Univ. of Houston).
The standard argument against executions is that they are cruel, inhumane and somehow uncivilized: a rhetorical strategy that often runs aground on the hard retort that killers can’t be punished enough and to feel sympathy for them is naïve at best. Some death penalty abolitionists, like Sister Helen Prejean, will explain why certain death row inmates are actually innocent, but even though the author is director of the Texas Innocence Network, he thinks that’s also the wrong angle to take. Dow systematically walks readers through the process by which states decide to execute criminals, a process that ultimately owes far more to a convict’s race, class and caliber of attorney than to the crime’s level of brutality, which is supposed to be the factor that determines whether a death penalty or life sentence is imposed. “The tiny handful that we execute is almost never the worst of the worst,” writes Dow. “Instead, people are executed because eyewitnesses make mistakes, police lie, defense lawyers sleep, and judges do not care.” He returns repeatedly to the subject of defense lawyers who slept through the trials of clients who later went to death row; in one unbelievable instance in Texas, six people who had been represented by one dozing lawyer were executed. It isn’t just a bad defense that makes the system so unfair to the accused, the author asserts; it’s also the simple fact that minorities are executed far more often than their white counterparts (regardless of the severity of the crime) and that higher courts are increasingly unwilling to hear appeals from those on death row. Though the central power of Dow’s argument occasionally gets lost in a book that frequently reads like a dry legal brief, he succeeds in illuminating the horrific arbitrariness of a system that has abandoned blind justice for “the rule of the mob.”
An honorably dispassionate and logical broadside against a shameful practice.