In response to:
The Condemned from the March 5, 1981 issue
To the Editors:
I read Jack Abbott’s review of Slow Coming Dark [NYR, March 5] with a mixture of dismay and surprise. His broad generalizations and sweeping judgments about those on death row, and Magee’s interviews with them, do little to serve the ultimate goal which he claims to support: abolition of the death penalty. In addition, there is a glaring error of fact in Abbott’s article. David Washington remains on death row in Florida and has yet to be executed (unless, of course, this was done in private with Abbott as the only witness).
Most disturbing to me was Abbott’s refusal to acknowledge that some of those awaiting execution might be innocent of their crimes, and his repeated argument that claims of innocence by some of the people interviewed by Magee denigrate the value and importance of what they have to say. In particular, I must comment on the case of Philip Brasfield, accused of kidnapping and murdering a six-year-old child in Lubbock, Texas. Phil’s interview in Slow Coming Dark portrays him as a sensitive, intelligent man caught in a macabre nightmare from which he cannot escape. From the time of his original trial, he claimed to be totally innocent. Apparently, there is something to this, for the US Court of Appeals recently overturned his death penalty conviction and ordered a new trial. I am convinced, after more than two years of correspondence with Phil, that he will eventually be exonerated—assuming that he is able to obtain the kind of decent legal defense he was not able to afford at his original trial. (This, despite Abbott’s misleading label of Brasfield as from a “middle-class family.”)
Abbott’s review did not do justice to Phil, the others on death row interviewed in this book, or to the issue of capital punishment. While I agree with his conclusion that “the death penalty is the last remnant of a time when exile, torture, and slavery seemed…just and necessary,” I wouldn’t base that conclusion on the notion that our society is too “civilized” and “sophisticated” to put people to death. The death penalty is brutal, immoral, and inherently unjust in any society.
There is much to be gained by reading this book, including an appreciation of the humanity of the men and women we are preparing to kill. It remains an essential prerequisite to executions or to war that we must first convince ourselves that our victims are less than human. Rather than a “sentimental point…useful to no one” as Abbott says, the fact that Slow Coming Dark succeeds in breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them” makes it an urgently useful resource—especially at a time of growing public fear and political rhetoric. It is possible that even Ronald Reagan or Strom Thurmond could benefit from reading such a book.
Nyack, New York
September 24, 1981