Capital punishment is popular in the United States: the public supports it overwhelmingly, skeptical politicians are afraid to challenge it publicly, and the execution rate continues to soar (it increased by about 800 percent during the 1990s). So authors Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell will raise eyebrows when they write: "We believe [capital punishment] will come to an end fairly soon." They're advocates of abolition ("We have opposed capital punishment for many years"), but they've tried hard to become dispassionate analysts on these pages. After four years of research, they're convinced that Americans are deeply conflicted on the issue rather than cheerleaders for death. "The public embraces the death penalty in theory, but in practice they look at it with an increasingly critical eye," the authors write.
Lifton and Mitchell begin by examining how three states--California, Massachusetts, and Missouri--handle the death penalty. In succeeding chapters, they provide a history of state-sponsored execution in the United States and describe the various ways the killing is done, from lethal injection (the most common form of execution) to hanging (yes, hanging--that's how Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington put people to death) and firing squads (in Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah). They also provide an in-depth look at the people involved in executions, from the criminals themselves to the families of murder victims to the folks in the criminal-justice system: prosecutors, judges, wardens, chaplains, and so on. The opponents of capital punishment often make the mistake of appearing to champion evildoers, either by denying their guilt or minimizing the harm they have done. Who Owns Death? avoids this fatal flaw (it is dedicated, in part, "to the families of murder victims"). Open-minded readers who want to explore what the death penalty really is--and Lifton and Mitchell think there are many more of these people than is commonly assumed--may walk away from it rethinking their own beliefs. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
In their preface, the authors write that they want to "understand the reasons for America's unyielding support for executions." But don't be fooled: this is a subtle, provocative argument against the death penalty. Lifton and Mitchell, longtime opponents of capital punishment, trace the history of the issue back to the GreeksAinexplicably ignoring the penalty's biblical roots. The bulk of the book, however, delves into capital punishment today. Lifton and Mitchell argue that, in the U.S., one of the few Western industrialized countries to still practice the death penalty, this willingness for the state to execute its citizens derives from a deep-seated violent core of American history beginning with the American Revolution. Today, they say, the death penalty both feeds into a "pornography of violence" and fulfills our desire to eradicate evil. Relying heavily on case studies, the authors probe what they see as the corrosive effect of the death penalty on prison wardens and chaplains, as well as on the governors who often make the final decisions on whether a convicted criminal will die. Given what they report, the authors' optimism that the death penalty may be on the way out appears forced. But both opponents and supporters of the death penalty will find themselves enriched by this book.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.