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Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolitionby David Garland
"In the 1950s and 1960s, politicians and public officials in the United States generally did not view opposition to the death penalty as a major political liability. Indeed some of them were outspoken foes of capital punishment. To demonstrate his faith in rehabilitation, Michael Disalle, Ohio's governor from 1959 to 1963, made it a point to hire convicted murderers to serve on his household staff. Governor Terry Sanford's numerous statements against capital punishment were so well known that prisoners on North Carolina's death row pointedly referred to them in their clemency appeals. Chub Peabody, who was elected governor of Massachusetts in a tight race in 1962, vowed that he would not sign a death warrant even for the Boston Strangler, if he were ever caught and convicted. During this period, public support for capital punishment was rapidly eroding, falling by 26 percent from 1953 to 1966, when for the first time more Americans were against the death penalty than for it." Matt Gottschalk, The New Republic (Read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
The U.S. death penalty is a peculiar institution, and a uniquely American one. Despite its comprehensive abolition elsewhere in the Western world, capital punishment continues in dozens of American states– a fact that is frequently discussed but rarely understood. The same puzzlement surrounds the peculiar form that American capital punishment now takes, with its uneven application, its seemingly endless delays, and the uncertainty of its ever being carried out in individual cases, none of which seem conducive to effective crime control or criminal justice. In a brilliantly provocative study, David Garland explains this tenacity and shows how death penalty practice has come to bear the distinctive hallmarks of America’s political institutions and cultural conflicts.
America’s radical federalism and local democracy, as well as its legacy of violence and racism, account for our divergence from the rest of the West. Whereas the elites of other nations were able to impose nationwide abolition from above despite public objections, American elites are unable– and unwilling– to end a punishment that has the support of local majorities and a storied place in popular culture.
In the course of hundreds of decisions, federal courts sought to rationalize and civilize an institution that too often resembled a lynching, producing layers of legal process but also delays and reversals. Yet the Supreme Court insists that the issue is to be decided by local political actors and public opinion. So the death penalty continues to respond to popular will, enhancing the power of criminal justice professionals, providing drama for the media, and bringing pleasure to a public audience who consumes its chilling tales.
Garland brings a new clarity to our understanding of this peculiar institution– and a new challenge to supporters and opponents alike.
Book News Annotation:
In an era when 137 countries (including almost all Western democracies) have abolished the death penalty, why has this ultimate punishment remained so popular in the US? In this important and compelling book, Garland (law and sociology, New York University) digs deep into the "peculiar institution" of the death penalty, attempting to understand its relationship to the society that sustains it and, in particular, to understand the death penalty's moral power and emotional appeal to those who support it. The author shows how the death penalty reflects US political institutions and cultural conflicts, and he argues that the continuing existence of capital punishment is largely due to institutional problems that make it difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate it. This provocative volume will interest many readers and, likely, provoke many arguments. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
David Garland is Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law and Professor of Sociology at New York University.
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