PROXIMITY TO DEATH by William S. McFeely


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A slender, forceful volume from Pulitzer-winning historian McFeely (Grant, 1981; Sapelo’s People, 1994) that examines the work of Stephen Bright’s Southern Center for Human Rights in defending the indigent of Death Row against the state’s killing apparatus. McFeely encountered Bright when solicited for testimony in a death-case appeal regarding the symbolic implications of the Confederate flag’s placement within the Georgia flag. Intrigued by Bright’s creativity in countermanding his clients” sentences, and startled by his quasi-Gothic encounter with death penalty reality, he’s produced an analysis of this seemingly quixotic fight on behalf of the condemned. Following Bright’s maxim that even murderers possess more humanity than their worst action indicates, McFeely succeeds in both illuminating Bright’s often scorned work and portraying the penalty’s effect on all those it ensnares, including jurors, families of victims and perpetrators, and sundry protesters. In keeping with his title, McFeely endeavors to discern the life in the midst of the mainstreamed execution culture of the southern “death belt.” His findings are unsettling: for example, the travails of a man whose 1977 death sentence is only commuted via a 1991 Bright-helmed retrial subtly evoke the absurdly timeless terror such inmates experience. Additionally, this historian discerns without rhetorical overkill the deeply race- and class-based inequities that have long compromised the application of capital punishment. He explores how public enthusiasm for it rises in times of war or domestic upheaval, and finds that generally, its application is determined by such factors as local outrage, political expedience, and initially poor legal representation. Also within is a provocative, disturbing portrayal of how determined southern legislators forced an end-run around the Supreme Court’s seemingly impermeable 1972 decision against capital punishment. McFeely succeeds in paying tribute to the maverick attorneys who pursue this unpopular, unremunerative work so vital to constitutional interests. He succeeds equally in his consideration of how this quintessentially American punishment stabs at the souls of all citizens, not least those who regard it as natural and just.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04819-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999


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