A valuable accounting of a hidden societal plague, likelier to appeal to attorneys, students, and activists than to the...

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CONVICTING THE INNOCENT

DEATH ROW AND AMERICA'S BROKEN SYSTEM OF JUSTICE

A disturbing compendium of wrongful convictions resulting in death sentences, focusing on individual stories and patterns of institutional failure.

Veteran journalist Cohen (The Execution of Officer Becker: The Murder of a Gambler, the Trial of a Cop, and the Birth of Organized Crime, 2006, etc.) brings moral outrage to this complex subject. “The execution of the innocent is not a chimera that troubles the imagination of the faint of heart,” he writes. “It is part of a broken system of justice.” Hardly rare, such occurrences have been documented since the early 1800s, but they seemingly spiked during the high-crime 1970s and ’80s. In reading through the many cases of death row exoneration since 2002 alone, as well as earlier ones, it becomes clear that those who suffer wrongful convictions tend to be poor, black, mentally challenged, or a combination; generally, their initial counsel is inadequate, and only the intervention of appellate attorneys and nonprofits reveals appalling instances of prosecutorial malfeasance or investigatory incompetence. All this gives weight to Cohen’s concern that the innocent have been executed. He begins by documenting two well-known cases where this almost certainly happened: Dennis Stockton of North Carolina and Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas. These set the grim tone for the case histories to follow, efficiently organized according to certain commonalities. Of these sections, the one dealing with official misconduct seems most ominous, focusing on stories like Chicago’s notorious police torture ring, which ginned up death penalty cases against at least 10 men. Yet, eyewitness misidentification, forensic errors, flawed science, and an overreliance on compromised criminal informants have proven nearly as problematic. The litany of depressing, detailed case histories can become numbing, but Cohen’s urgency doesn’t flag as he returns to researchers’ consensus that “about ten percent of the inhabitants of death row or inmates serving life sentences are innocent.”

A valuable accounting of a hidden societal plague, likelier to appeal to attorneys, students, and activists than to the police officers, prosecutors, and “tough on crime” types who should read it.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-63220-646-6

Page Count: 300

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

Review Posted Online: Feb. 15, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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