- Paperback: 408 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 31, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674010833
- ISBN-13: 978-0674010833
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #656,657 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Death Penalty: An American History
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Stuart Banner's The Death Penalty is a richly detailed overview of American attitudes toward and implementation of capital punishment throughout its past. Banner decries what he sees as today's prevailing "smug condescension" to history, and states that executing a fellow human in the 17th and 18th centuries, though exponentially more common than today, was "just as momentous" an act. He traces changing technology and venues as well as the relatively constant arguments--legal, philosophical, and religious--of proponents and opponents. The book is rich with fascinating sidelights, among them the chilling practice of "symbolic" executions, the idea that dissections, viewed as a sort of punishment beyond death, were thought to act as deterrents to capital crime, and how the rise of newspapers as a mass medium hastened, in part, the demise of public hangings. The Death Penaltyis free of polemic and cant, admirably disinterested, and at once rigorous yet thoroughly accessible. --H. O'Billovich --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In this well-researched and clear account, Washington University law professor Banner charts how and why this country went from having one of the world's mildest punitive systems to one of its harshest. In colonial America, criminals were hanged before large crowds in elaborate rituals that included sermons and prayers. All serious crimes robbery, arson, counterfeiting were capital offenses. But gradually, opposition to execution took root and, by the 1780s, it was considered by many to be a feudal relic incompatible with human progress; resulting penal reforms significantly reduced the use of capital punishment. By the Civil War, a prolonged debate led three northern states to abolish it, while the rest limited its application to murderers (the South's opinions on the matter remained more or less unchanged). As 19th-century "elites" withdrew from the crowds at public executions, the mood turned against them altogether; when executions were moved inside prison walls, they no longer presented the public with their traditional (and gruesome) brand of deterrence. But, as Banner shows, in the last few decades, the number of executions has surged. Today, he contends, the death penalty is "an emotionally charged political issue administered within a legal framework so unworkable that it satisfie[s] no one." (12 halftones, not seen) (Mar.)Forecast: If booksellers shelve this with the recently reissued Legal Lynching by Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jesse Jackson Jr. and Ivan Solotaroff's The Last Face You'll Ever See, they'll see increased sales, for those impassioned on the subject will seek them out. And with its original and sound research, this volume should have staying power.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
A reader of Stuart Banner's "The Death Penalty: An American History" will realize very little new can be added to the debate. Banner provides an extensively detailed account of all aspects of the death penalty throughout the past 350 years. From colonial times through the execution of Timothy McVeigh, this book looks at the logistics, politics, and theology of capital punishment. The author comes as close to complete objectivity in presenting the history as possible. Banner is fair in showing the strengths and weaknesses in arguments for and against capital punishment. And he provides fascinating information concerning the debates that surrounded periodic changes in how the death penalty was administered. Throughout history there have been many debates: the merits of hanging versus electrocution; the arguments for and against public execution; the role of penitence (thus the name penitentiary) in punishment.
I found that this history of one issue was very much a microcosm of the broader history of the United States. For instance, I was not familiar with the legal term petit treason. This describes the concept of treason-an offense against someone to whom absolute loyalty is owed-in private life. Those convicted of petit treason were subject the "more severe" punishment of death by burning. In 17th and 18th century America two classes were capable of being convicted of petit treason. The classes were slaves "convicted of murdering their owners or of plotting a revolt" and women "convicted of killing their husbands." (p. 71)
Class played a pivotal role in the move from public hangings to jail yard executions. Banner describes how elites in the 19th century became appalled at public hangings because the large crowds were rowdy and displayed lower class sensibilities. Simply put, those in power were not opposed to hanging-they were opposed to being in the presence of the working class when the restraints of the workplace were removed.
Class, race, and gender divisions are evident in almost every area of this controversial issue. And no great American controversy would be complete with religious implications. In fact, no less a public preacher than Cotton Mather worried in the 17th century that he could rise to the occasion of giving the sermon to the crowd of thousands that attended executions. As the author notes about public hangings: "An execution could be a splendid occasion for reinforcing religious authority." To this day, capital punishment attracts those in authority to make religious arguments both in opposition and support of the death penalty.
As stated earlier, this book is not a polemic. It is an accurate history of one of our most contentious issues. As is the case with history, I am sure both those if favor of capital punishments and abolitionists can find many facts to support their beliefs. It is also true that a better understanding of history must allow all involved to reconsider some beliefs. "The Death Penalty: An American History" should be read by every legislator who will vote on state-sanctioned killing.
It is not a long book but it looks at a surprisingly large number of issues not only about the penalty itself but the ritual around it, the means used and a detailed explanation of the constitutional argument that led to its abolition and its resurrection...
In describing the way the death penalty is administered the one interesting point made by the author is the discrepancy in its implementation. Almost all of the death penalty cases occur in the Southern States. There appear to be a number of reasons for this one being the fact that these states have the highest rates of murder, the only crime which realistically now attracts the penalty. The author however makes the point that another key factor in the geographic distribution of the death penalty is the way that defendants are represented. In the North the state funds public defenders officers which provide a high standard of legal representation. This means that during the penalty phase of the trial care is undertaken to call evidence that will lead to imprisonment rather than execution. In the South the system of providing legal assistance is for the state to pay private lawyers to undertake death penalty cases. The fees are stingey and as a result defence lawyers are often have no experience or skill in running such cases. Mitigatory evidence is seldom called and the usual methods of arguing for a lesser penalty are not used. Capital cases in the South are littered with tales of incredibly incompetent defence lawyers.
The writer appears to be a legal academic and the most interesting part of the book is the explanation of the constitutional arguments over the legality of the penalty. The explanation of the arguments over how it was argued that the penalty was cruel and unusual and the legislative changes which were used to overcome these arguments is excellent and makes a complex area easy to grasp.
All in all an interesting book for those who wish to read about the subject.