Over two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment. One-hundred and forty-one countries. Of course, that doesn’t include us. In America, though, we have 19 abolitionist jurisdictions, with Connecticut being the latest to repeal state-sanctioned murder. Maryland and California aren’t far behind. Yes, I said murder. Premeditated cold-blooded murder. The ultimate denial of human rights. We kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. Even a five-year old understands how illogical this is.
So why do we still do it? In the name of justice? Perhaps more in the name of revenge. Think about it: revenge is the purest of motives, the strongest of motivators and the most primordial of urges. Do we rape the rapists? Do we beat the assaulters? Why then do we kill the killers? How, in a Draconian and irretrievably broken justice system, can we be sure that the condemned are 100 percent guilty? We are all familiar with the Innocence Project; to date, the group has helped to exonerate 303 people through DNA testing. About 20 of those were on death row. That’s 20 innocent people we almost murdered.
There’s not enough ink for me to cover the cases where a huge balloon of doubt still hangs over the freshly-killed corpses strapped to gurneys in various death chambers. I can’t even think about Troy Davis without getting nauseated. The state of Georgia put him down like an animal despite overwhelming new evidence that he was innocent.
The United States is the one solitary nation among Western democracies to still wield the death penalty as punishment. Yet the facts behind the retention of capital punishment in our nation – and why we still employ such an arguably severe sentence – remain emotionally grounded in political and cultural beliefs. New York University’s legal scholar and sociology professor David Garland sets out to explain the strange morphing of capital punishment, and the even stranger hold it has on America in “Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.” Garland presents the case that the nation’s judicial death machine remains racialized and motivated by societal pressure, regardless of the statistical proof that it deters no crime.
Garland’s book is a multilayered, interdisciplinary analysis that explores the evolution of the death penalty across the centuries. His comprehensive look into capital punishment takes readers on a journey that is at times gory, but never departs from the impetus for the transition that the death penalty has undergone. His perspective for analysis ranges from historical to political/legal to cultural.
And Garland’s lengthy pedigree in the arena of research on crime and punishment is worthy of note. The NYU professor of law and sociology penned an entire series of books on punishment and social control spanning from 1985 to 2001. He is also the founding editor of the international interdisciplinary journal “Punishment and Society” (NYU’s The Docket). In this piece, his lens is entirely scholarly, his voice that of a keen observer rather than someone with vested political interest. He is careful to keep his tone amoral, and to not take a stance either for or against capital punishment as an institution; even so, the facts presented make a powerful argument for death penalty opponents.
The author’s premise rests on several points, but primarily on two arguments: Firstly and most controversially, that the death penalty is racially biased and still whispers of Southern lynch mobs. Garland uses historical trends rather than hard statistics to support this, but paints the picture nonetheless. “In the minds of many people, today’s death penalty – which is more than ever before an institution of the Southern states – carries clear traces of racial lynching and is inextricably linked to the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery that lies in the root of this blood-stained history” (12). He maintains that capital punishment is firmly grounded in the South’s legacy of racial violence as evidenced by the disproportionate number of black offenders executed, “though the precise relationship is by no means clear” (13).
Secondly, Garland concludes that the death penalty’s evolution from a bloody, public code of revenge to a private spectacle of justice is due to a societal opposition to inflicting barbarism on another human being, and political posturing. And while imposing a death sentence on criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes is still driven by emotion rather than the exalting of sovereign state power, the way it is meted out has everything to do with maintaining a humane standard. America has gone from disemboweling, flaying or burning the guilty to death to a procedure like lethal injection, which more resembles a furtive medical pre-operative practice that gives witnesses less to squirm in their seats about. Even so, there is an air of embarrassment or guilt on those involved in the death process. “The result is that executions often seem on the verge of violating propriety and decency. The all-important sense of decorum at these events is fragile and easily breached – by a nosebleed, trouble finding a vein, an inmate too heavy to be hanged, or an aged inmate who has to be wheeled into the death chamber in a wheelchair” (60).
Garland’s tome positions his well-evidenced arguments in the main room of the scholarly conversation on capital punishment; he clearly tries to impart to the reader that while has no opinion of record, the system remains inexorably tainted. His conclusions are those of merit, and although the discussion on the death penalty itself is not folly, he offers a fresh perspective on why the system morphed from a bloody show of revenge to the instrument it has become in our age, a peculiar institution used for the political and cultural purpose of retribution.
For its solid merits, the text does fall short of examining several considerations married to the tricky subject of capital punishment, namely the ratio of sentences imposed to those actually carried out. Death row inmates on appeal can wait twenty years or better in some cases before ever seeing the chamber. Garland does offer decisions from a bevy of tangled legal precedents, but does not clearly analyze the nonfinancial impact that long, drawn-out capital cases has on the integrity (or lack thereof) of the process itself. The author is also neglectful on exploring the ideological impetus for Furman v. Georgia, one of the most notorious U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the twentieth century, and the one that quite nearly caused complete abolition of capital punishment. While he sees that the decision was likely the justices’ struggle to interpret the U.S. Constitution, he does not acknowledge that the emergency federal and state moratorium on the death penalty was likely a knee-jerk reaction to the racially-fueled culture wars of the time.
The death penalty is no more adapted to suit its own purpose today than it was at its inception, regardless of the procedural protections in place. Garland’s text is fantastically devoid of pontificating, but the deeper nature of the well-evidenced facts presented are troubling. Considering that the scholarly conversation about capital punishment will likely remain controversial, students of criminal justice, those pursuing studies in race, and all members of American society that take part in the process of meting out a death sentence will benefit from reading Garland’s discourse. As he concedes in his conclusion, the conversation is far from over.