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The Culture of the Condemned

by David Von Drehle

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 1995
ISBN: 0-8129-2166-6
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

 Washington Post reporter Drehle (formerly of the Miami Herald) crafts a gripping narrative traversing the world of the death penalty. ``Twenty men have been sentenced to die under Florida's modern death penalty laws for every one who has been executed,'' he writes. ``Nothing but chance has separated those who live from those who died.'' Though he reviews (and refutes) the standard prodeath penalty arguments of deterrence and retribution, Drehle's concern is with the flawed system in practice. He examines in detail Florida cases beginning with that of John Spenkelink, whose May 1979 execution was the first after the Supreme Court's invalidation of all death penalty laws in 1972. Florida had passed a new law aiming to respond to the high court's quest for procedural certainty; however, notes the author, most experts failed to recognize ``how contentious and crazy and tortured the whole process was going to be.'' The book meanders but abounds with memorable, sometimes macabre material, including a case in which two men on death row had to plead guilty to a crime they had earlier denied committing in order to be released on the basis of time served, and the request by a black killer who hated whites to have his ashes taken to Africa. Drehle treats even opportunistic characters like former Florida governor Bob Graham with dignity and lets his reporting drive his conclusions. A narrow death penalty limited to cases like serial murder or political killings would provide firmer ground for judging, he suggests. Some of the crimes- -especially those by serial killer Ted Bundy, whose case dominates the last third of the book--are indeed monstrous. Drehle observes that death row inmates are invariably weak, flawed people who could not overcome childhood deprivation and violence: ``This isn't bleeding-heart stuff, just simple fact.'' A powerful argument that we should all avoid sloganeering about the death penalty and think more carefully about justice. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)