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Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of the Death Penalty Hardcover – October 31, 2000

4.3 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 270 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; 1st edition (November 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380974983
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380974986
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,576,399 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Lifton and Mitchell do a great job of not only explaining the vast problems with capital punishment - from its bias against blacks to its immorality - but they also delve into the psyche of everyone involved. Whether you are pro-death penalty or a strong opponent, this book opens your eyes to everything that is wrong with capital punishment.
But, you also learn why you either favor or object to the practice though detailed psychiatric analysis that most people don't even consider when weighing in on the issue.
Sure, the authors are fierce death penatly opponents, but that does not stop them from putting a critical eye on both sides of the debate and providing strong arguments for the end of this process.
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Format: Paperback
I found this book a good read and would recommend it.
One major objective of this book is to show capitol punishment from all angles. They talk about he prosecutors, the jurors, the judge, the executioners, the governors, and all other cogs in the system. By the time they are done, they make a convincing argument that this process is so fractionalized that nobody feels ultimate responsibility for this grave action (which helps keep it alive).
It also explores people's "support" for capitol punishment. You come to realize that the *objective* of a lot of supporters is keeping the criminal off the street, not vengeance. Thus, when given the option of life without parole, the support for capitol punishment drops below 50%.
I feel that there was a lot of "On one hand... then on the other hand... but you have to remember... and it is important not to discount...".
Although they referenced many polls and facts, I would have preferred this to be a little more 'scientific' and less philosophical. Also in their effort to explor all sides of this issue, many of their statements are pretty obvious -- for example, victim families what vengence and 'closure'. Duh.
I found the style to be a little odd. One of the writers is a journalist and the book is written accordingly. One one hand, they try to be even-handed showing all sides, while on the other, they write with the base assumption that capitol punishment is wrong. I did not find this confusing, but it was a little odd.
I don't wish these comments to discourage people -- it is a worthwhile read, but it does have a few shortcommings.
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Format: Hardcover
The book does a great job in providing an overview of the death penalty and why it should be discontinued. The authors use an anecdote style and good documentation to debunct the death penalty on moral, religious, and pragmatic reasons. Nearly everyone has heard the DNA argument and the lack of competant legal representation for death row prisoners as a reason for discontinuing capital punishment. Lifton and Mitchell present original ideas such as "death dynamism" which promotes a cycle of death(i.e. domestic terrorism martyrs), how the death penalty actually prevents emotional healing, and that who dies can depend on locale and a particular judge. The authors present somber examples throughout the book, one in particular about how one judge may agonize over the penalty and another may draw a "happy face" on a death warrant. A minor point; I wish that the authors had explored the character of American violence more deeply particularly the current culture which is currently evolving via graphic video games, music, and of course movies. I say this not from a moral basis but in a pragmatic sense that these influences may make society less sensitive to the loss of human life. I highly recommend this book and feel it will be a excellent resource for years to come.
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Format: Paperback
I can honestly describe this as a book that changed my life, although perhaps not in quite the manner that might be expected. Prior to reading this book I felt passionately hostile towards capital punishment in America. It seemed to me to be the ultimate abberation and hypocracy that the country that prided itself as a champion of freedom could do this to its citizens. I felt sympathy for the plight of at least some of those who found themselves accused of murder (rightly or wrongly) and who were facing the death penalty; and deep hatred, distrust, and animosity towards those who supported this cruel and inhumane practice.

At the same time I was dimly aware that my attitude was at least a little unbalanced. I knew that there were many ordinary folk in America, the UK and elsewhere who supported the death penalty, and I knew that it was unhealthy and unbalanced for me to be hating them so much on account of this....

From the outset this book expresses understanding and compassion for the families of murder victims who may support the application of the death penalty to the person who (allegedly) murdered their loved one. The authors acknowledge that they would probably initially feel similarly if someone were to murder one of their friends or relatives, but that on reflection they would take a principled stand against such a course of action.

Rather than villifying those who support the death penalty, the authors seek to understand them and why they think as they do, looking in turn at different groups involved in the death penalty process. It also seeks to understand the point of view of people within each group who were against the death penalty, or ambivalent.
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