Disconcerting exposé of a little-recalled era of death penalty discrimination in the U.S. military.
Serrano (Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, 2013, etc.), a Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, unearths a disheartening tale of unequal justice during the period between World War II and the major events of the civil rights movement regarding soldiers who received the ultimate sanction for committing rape or murder. Yet once on the military’s death row at Fort Leavenworth prison, their fates obeyed the color line: “All on death row, white and black, clearly recognized that in the late 1950s, none were treated alike….Eight white soldiers spared, eight black soldiers hanged.” Serrano focuses on the crime and punishment of John Bennett, an uneducated black soldier from impoverished Jim Crow roots, who drunkenly assaulted a young Austrian girl; although she survived, a court-martial swiftly sentenced him to death. After several years, as the backing for capital punishment appeared to wane, he was last on death row, fueling support for commutation of his sentence, as had been done for white soldiers who had committed similar crimes. Over six years of legal battles, his case attracted prominent supporters like psychiatrist Karl Menninger and prison doctors who argued his lifelong epilepsy might’ve influenced the crime. Still, the military’s position remained that Bennett’s death “was necessary.” Because the arc of Bennett’s sad legacy is straightforward, the author builds the narrative in engaging digressions, covering the development of Leavenworth, Dwight Eisenhower’s frosty relationship with desegregation, and the lawyers and activists who mounted a lonely crusade on behalf of the condemned black soldiers. Serrano paces his slim account for maximum suspense, but Bennett’s execution feels increasingly foreordained, particularly when the putatively liberal John F. Kennedy declines to second-guess his predecessor. The author’s scrupulous research ably captures a shameful time during the military’s halting journey toward integration.
A compact, engrossing historical meditation with clear relevance to current controversies over race and punishment.