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Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty First Edition Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374128739
ISBN-10: 0374128731
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Is there anything new to say about whether the death penalty should be abolished? It turns out there is. Bestselling author Turow (Reversible Errors) has some useful insights into this fiercely debated subject, based on his experiences as a prosecutor and, in his postprosecutorial years, working on behalf of death-row inmates, and his two years on Illinois's Commission on Capital Punishment, charged by the former Gov. George Ryan with examining how the death penalty might be more fairly administered. This is a sober and elegantly concise examination of a complex, fraught topic by an admitted "agnostic." His views veering one way and then the other, Turow shares his back-and-forth reasoning as he carefully discusses each issue, from the possible execution of an innocent person (a serious danger) to whether execution is a deterrent (it's not). Perhaps most illuminating are Turow's thoughts on victims' rights (which he says must be weighed against the needs of the community); on what to do with "the worst of the worst" (he visits a maximum security prison to meet multiple-murderer Henry Brison, who, Turow says, "most closely resembles... Hannibal Lecter"); and the question of what he calls "moral proportion," the notion that execution is meant to restore moral balance, which, he says, requires an "unfailingly accurate" system of justice. This measured weighing of the facts will be most valuable to those who, like Turow, are on the fence-they will find an invaluable, objective look at both sides of this critical but highly charged debate.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Popular legal-fiction writer Turow takes on the divisive topic of the death penalty in this concise, thoughtful essay. A self-proclaimed "death penalty agnostic," Turow didn't consider himself an expert on the issue even during his years as a prosecutor or when he helped in the defense of some high-profile capital cases. Nonetheless, in early 2000, after Illinois governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on further executions, Turow was appointed to a 14-member blue-ribbon commission charged with helping reform the state's capital punishment system. Ryan's groundbreaking moratorium began a wave of similar actions nationwide as more and more guilty convictions were questioned, whether via new DNA evidence or an overzealous prosecutorial machine (in two key cases in Illinois, a little of both). Turow traces the recent history of the death penalty through his own experiences, and though he was ambivalent about it at the start, he comes away with definite convictions. This is not a scientific study, Turow admits, but he does supply ample notes to back up many of the claims he makes throughout the book. Also included is the commission's report as submitted to Governor Ryan. Together with Mark Fuhrman's more procedural study, Death and Justice [BKL Jl 03], Turow's reflections will spark further discussions on this troublesome issue. Mary Frances Wilkens
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (October 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374128731
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374128739
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,322,762 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I have been a fan of Scott Turow's fiction for a number of years. So, when I was asked to read and review his latest work, a nonfiction book dealing with one of the most controversial topics in America today, that of capital punishment, I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to find out what this bestselling author-lawyer had to say on the subject. I was not disappointed. Turow's very short treatise on the "ultimate punishment" (only about 120 pages of actual discussion) immediately brings the controversy into focus and lays out the arguments on both sides of the issue.

Admitting that initially he was an "agnostic" regarding the death penalty, Turow was appointed to serve on the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment by then-Governor George Ryan, who had declared a moratorium on further executions in Illinois on January 31, 2000, a decision that was heavily criticized by many both in his own state and also nationwide. Ryan's justification for his action was that the Illinois' capital justice system was "fraught with error." Shortly after he issued the moratorium, Governor Ryan put together a fourteen-member Commission to look into the matter of reforming the system. Former prosecutor and now-defense attorney Scott Turow has used his experience serving on the Commission to examine the very serious debate over the death penalty in "Ultimate Punishment."

Turow's examination of capital punishment is not merely theoretical. He has been directly involved in death penalty cases, including successfully representing two different individuals convicted in death-penalty prosecutions. In other words, he can speak from practical experience and not just from the ivory tower of academic debate.
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Format: Hardcover
Rendered with his fictional writing flair, Turow has tackled a subject matter that literarily deals with life and death. In this short though thorough essay, the novelist reflects on the many arguments surrounding the death penalty. In March 2000, a Moratorium on executions was declared by the then Governor of Illinois, George Ryan. Turow, along with many distinguished lawyers and academics, after two years of deliberation, submitted their recommendations. As a result of these findings, Ryan made international news by commuting the sentences of 167 persons left on death row. (This made headline news in Australia as the death penalty here was abolished over forty years ago) It should go without saying that this was a bold move by the Governor and potential political suicide. However he was at the end of his tenure and decided to make a choice and act on that choice. This book summarizes the many aspects of the Moratorium's deliberations, which makes fascinating reading.

Before the Moratorium, Turow admits that he was a "Death Penalty Agnostic". In other words, the man was a fence sitter, refusing to make a stand either way. However, after two years on the committee, and by the end of the essay, if asked whether Illinois should retain Capital Punishment, his answer is a certain, no. After reading the many reasons for and against the debate, I found it understandable why he fell off the fence. That the system is fallible and the fact that, for the most part, we seem to be hard wired for revenge, it has been all too easy, in our zealousness for justice or retribution, to execute innocent people. This has occurred far too many times for any government to be comfortable executing its citizens.
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Format: Paperback
I am not the type to offer a verbose review. Suffice it to say that this is an exceptional work of non-fiction that offers arguably the most balanced view to date of the U.S. system of capital punishment. I am a reformed death penalty proponent who went through a period of Turow-esque "agnosticism" before settling firmly on the side of opposition. I am no longer ambivalent. The death penalty should be abolished--period. Though Turow's book had no effect on my change, it did help solidify my current stance. This book should be required reading in any course of study dealing with the criminal justice system, and I do plan to use it in the future in the college criminal justice courses that I teach, along with Scheck, Neufeld, and Dwyer's "Actual Innocence." Perhaps the powers that be will eventually wake up and smell the stench of injustice . . . but I'm not holding my breath. . . .
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Ultimate Punishment" was written soon after Scott Turow finished serving on a public commission to investigate the death penalty in Illinois. The book is part memoire, part reflection on capital punishment. It's rational and fairminded, but very short (barely 120 pages)and very light on legal analysis or social science.

Its core rhetorical strategy is to consider a few actual death penalty cases that plunge the reader into the pain and moral ambiguities of capital punishment. On the one hand, these horrific crimes cry out for vengeance. It's difficult to imagine a 10-year old girl being raped, tortured and strangled without wanting to string up the perpetrator. And yet...there's no evidence that the death penalty deters murder. The killers themselves are badly broken beings, victims of child abuse or mental retardation. Innocent men are sometimes sentenced to death: when a grisly crime is committed, juries are eager to convict someone (anyone), and some cops and prosecutors are willing to cut corners. And the whole death penalty system is arbitrary and biased against non-whites: the evidence shows that juries value the lives of white victims more than the lives of non-white victims. It's a wretched human landscape.

Unfortunately, Turow's potted case summaries are too rushed and underanalyzed to really do justice to the subject. The book feels like a long magazine article. In the end, he decided that he is against the death penalty. That's an understandable position but it was no excuse for not writing a longer, more serious book.

Memory Lane: I worked briefly as a deputy district attorney in California in the mid-1980s after I graduated from law school.
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