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Dead Man Walking: Books about the death penalty

02/28/15
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Posted by Mary Ann

The death penalty has been around for a long time, in one form or another, but as things have changed over the years, many societies have moved beyond it. Not the U.S. Such a serious topic, one with so many moral and ethical implications, has of course attracted the attention of many writers. The latest, of course, is Bryan Stevenson and his book “Just Mercy.”

When I started thinking about books that feature the death penalty, I quickly became overwhelmed. I’m going to mention a couple that you’ve probably heard of, and a few that maybe you haven’t.

First up is Ernest Gaines’ classic “A Lesson Before Dying.” This immensely moving 1993 book tells the story of Grant Wiggins, a teacher in the plantation lands of Louisiana whose conscience and moral fiber are tested when Jefferson, a slow-witted man, is charged with the murder of two men in a bar fight. The man’s defense lawyer argues that the man is so slow-witted, it would be like charging a hog with murder, that Jefferson is mentally incapable of such a crime.

Jefferson is convicted, but Wiggins’ godmother convinces him that he has to help Jefferson come to terms with who he is, and achieve the dignity that his defense lawyer denied him. Wiggins, an educated black man, does not really want to get involved in Jefferson’s case, but he begins to visit him, and over time, something profoundly moving begins to happen to Jefferson – and to Wiggins.

This is a multilayered book, with many fascinating characters, including a minister who thinks Wiggins should be trying to save Jefferson’s soul, and a white deputy who Wiggins discovers he has more in common with than he would have thought. It is a moving book that will stay with you long after you have read the final page.

“Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean. This nonfiction book, by a leading advocate for abolishing the death penalty, is also set in in Louisiana – at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It all started when, living as a Roman Catholic nun in New Orleans, Sister Prejean began corresponding with two convicted murderers. Eventually she began visiting both men and became a spiritual advisor of sorts to both.

This book is a spiritual journey through all aspects of the death penalty, from the plight of the condemned men to the rage of those who loved the victims of the crimes they perpetrated. This story has been turned into a play, a movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, and even an opera – it’s obviously a story that resonates.

Sister Prejean continues to work as an advocate against the death penalty and has written other books, including “The Death of Innocents,” in which she follows the cases of two men she believes were convicted on very flimsy evidence.

The incredibly successful legal thriller writer John Grisham has always been interested in the death penalty. Grisham is from the South, an area where a large proportion of the nation’s death row inmates are incarcerated, and some eventually executed. In 2006, Grisham took a break from writing best-selling novels to pen an nonfiction book, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town.” It’s the story of Ron Williamson, a man who had to shelve his career as a minor-league baseball player and return to his small town of Ada, Oklahoma. He developed a drinking problem. In Grisham’s account, when a waitress is raped, beaten and murdered, the Ada police department goes after Williamson and one of his drinking partners, Dennis Fritz.

This shocking story tells the story of how the Ada police department and the district attorney used forced “dream” confessions, unreliable witnesses, and flimsy evidence to convict Williamson and Fritz. Williamson’s conviction set in motion a series of appeals, which eventually attracted the attention of the Innocence Project. After 11 years on death row, Williamson, who suffered from several mental disorders, including manic depression and schizophrenia, and Fritz were exonerated through new DNA evidence. Williamson has died, but Fritz published his own book about his experience called “Journey Towards Justice.”

Reading “Just Mercy,” it’s unavoidable to note how many of the people his organization is trying to help are poor and black. A 2010 book that examined the disproportionate number of African Americans who are incarcerated was called “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. This book became a surprise best-seller – it was published by the New Press, a relatively small independent publisher, but two years later it had sold 175,000 copies after an initial hardcover printing of a mere 3,000, according to the publisher.

Alexander, a law professor who now teaches at Ohio State University, uses statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. She writes that early one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. Many people have written about this, but Alexander pushed her argument even further, arguing that this crackdown was a device for pushing back gains made by the civil rights movement. I have not read this book, so I cannot say one way or another whether she makes her case. But it caught the attention of black and white readers alike, especially because the cost of incarceration in America continues to explode, as Stevenson so eloquently notes in his book.

I want to briefly mention a more personal take on this issue – the impact of arguing these cases on those who do the arguing. “Things I’ve Learned from Dying” is a book by David Dow, who has argued more than 100 death penalty cases. In this book, published this year, Dow, a death penalty lawyer who founded the Texas Innocence Network and who teaches law at the University of Houston, writes about three personal experiences: The death of his beloved dog, the predicament of his father-in-law from melanoma, who is struggling with the issue of whether to take on treatments that will prolong, but not save, his life, and one of his cases, an attempt to save an inmate on Texas’ death row.What has he learned? I guess we will have to read the book to find out.

Finally – best-selling novelist Stephen King has never flinched from a tough topic, and his 1996 novel “The Green Mile” is a case in point. It was originally published in six slim volumes, then combined into a single book. It’s the story of Paul Edgecombe, a supervisor at a Louisiana penitentiary (here we are in Louisana again) who encounters an inmate on death row wo has, shall we say, some unusual abilities. This is a brutal, vividly written story with elements of magical realism, told in retrospect by Paul as an old man. Sometimes I have a hard time stomaching the violence in King’s books, but I admire and respect his ability to look straight on at all aspects of human experience.

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