On the Death Sentence

Ken Light/Contact Press Images
Death row inmates in Texas’s Ellis I Unit, with Perry Mason on the television, 1994; photograph by Ken Light from his 1995 book Texas Death Row

David Garland is a well-respected sociologist and legal scholar who taught courses on crime and punishment at the University of Edinburgh before relocating to the United States over a decade ago. His recent Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition is the product of his attempt to learn “why the United States is such an outlier in the severity of its criminal sentencing.” Thus, while the book primarily concerns the death penalty, it also illuminates the broader, dramatic differences between American and Western European prison sentences.

Describing his study, Garland explains:

When I talk to people about my book on capital punishment, the first thing they inevitably ask is, “Is your book for it or against it?” The answer, I tell them, is neither.

In fact, despite its ostensible amorality, his work makes a powerful argument that will persuade many readers that the death penalty is unwise and unjustified.

His explanation of why the United States retains capital punishment is based, in part, on the greater importance of local decision-making as compared with the more centralized European governments with which he was familiar before moving to New York. Some of his eminently readable prose reminds me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century narrative about his visit to America; it has the objective, thought-provoking quality of an astute observer rather than that of an interested participant in American politics.

As is typical of many Supreme Court opinions rejecting legal arguments advanced by defendants in capital cases, Garland’s prologue begins with a detailed description of a horrible crime that will persuade many readers that the defendant not only deserves the death penalty but also should be subjected to the kind of torture that was common in sixteenth-century England. Garland also describes such torture in detail. This “emotional appeal” of the death penalty, Garland declares, is an important topic in his study.

His first chapter then includes a graphic description of the 1757 execution in Paris, France, of Robert Damiens, who tried to assassinate Louis XV, and an even more graphic description of the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas. Each was a gruesome public spectacle witnessed by a large, enthusiastic crowd. Of the latter, Garland writes:

between three and four hundred spectacle lynchings of this kind took place in the South between 1890 and 1940, along with several thousand other lynchings that proceeded with less cruelty, smaller crowds, and little ceremony.

Garland uses the “archetypal Southern lynching scene,” another gruesome execution, and chilling murders to orient his study. Not until page 36 does he pose the question that had already occurred to me: Would his analysis differ if he had initially discussed Michigan’s pathbreaking 1846 decision to…

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