The Longform.org Guide to the Death Penalty
The jury box, the prison cell, and the chair—six gripping and disturbing stories about capital punishment.
While most of Europe and much of the rest of the world have abandoned the death penalty, support for capital punishment in the United States has endured with remarkable consistency, even in the face of wrongful convictions. Here's a look at the death penalty in America through the eyes of those closest to it: the legislators, the judges, the juries, the lawyers, and, of course, the condemned. The Texas Clemency Memos Alan Berlow • The Atlantic Monthly • July 2003 As Texas governor and attorney general, respectively, George W. Bush and Alberto Gonzales should have given each capital case careful consideration. The evidence suggests they did not:
"Gonzales declined to be interviewed for this story, but during the 2000 presidential campaign I asked him if Bush ever read the clemency petitions of death-row inmates, and he equivocated. 'I wouldn't say that was done in every case,' he told me. 'But if we felt there was something he should look at specifically—yes, he did look from time to time at what had been filed.' I have found no evidence that Gonzales ever sent Bush a clemency petition—or any document—that summarized in a concise and coherent fashion a condemned defendant's best argument against execution in a case involving serious questions of innocence or due process. Bush relied on Gonzales's summaries, which never made such arguments."
The Chessman Affair Time • March 1960 The last days of Caryl Chessman, best-selling author and murderer:
"Standing at the barred door of his cell after he got the expected news that the judiciary committee had blocked Brown's proposal, Chessman managed to summon a wry smile. 'I have had nine execution dates, and have been spared eight times,' he said. 'I do not want to be credited with more lives than a cat.' "
Trial By Fire David Grann • The New Yorker • September 2009 Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and sentenced to die for killing his two children, a crime he almost certainly did not commit:
"Another crucial piece of evidence implicating Willingham was the 'crazed glass' that Vasquez had attributed to the rapid heating from a fire fuelled with liquid accelerant. Yet, in November of 1991, a team of fire investigators had inspected fifty houses in the hills of Oakland, California, which had been ravaged by brush fires. In a dozen houses, the investigators discovered crazed glass, even though a liquid accelerant had not been used. Most of these houses were on the outskirts of the blaze, where firefighters had shot streams of water; as the investigators later wrote in a published study, they theorized that the fracturing had been induced by rapid cooling, rather than by sudden heating—thermal shock had caused the glass to contract so quickly that it settled disjointedly. The investigators then tested this hypothesis in a laboratory. When they heated glass, nothing happened. But each time they applied water to the heated glass the intricate patterns appeared. Hurst had seen the same phenomenon when he had blowtorched and cooled glass during his research at Cambridge. In his report, Hurst wrote that Vasquez and Fogg's notion of crazed glass was no more than an 'old wives' tale.' "
In the Face of Death Alex Kotlowitz • New York Times Magazine • July 2003 What it's like to serve on a jury in a capital case:
"The jurors were escorted to the jury room, a small, unadorned space, where Garrison, the foreman, let everyone collect themselves. The 12 jurors mulled silently for half an hour, helping themselves to cans of pop and orange juice from one of two small refrigerators. They then convened around an oval-shaped, laminated wood table. Since it could accommodate only eight chairs, four of the jurors had to sit against the wall. One juror could be heard mumbling, 'I don't want to be doing this.' It's how many of them felt. On a blackboard, Carrie Tuterow wrote down the options: death, life without parole, and a determinate sentence. Garrison suggested they first take a vote, and so everyone, anonymously, wrote on a piece of paper where he or she stood."
On the Row Tina Rosenberg • Rolling Stone • October 1995 On an convict too young to vote but old enough to be strapped to a chair:
"In the last 15 years, only Iraq and possibly Iran have executed more minors, and only six other countries have executed even one. Some of the very qualities that make juvenile criminals most terrifying—their impulsiveness, a tendency to fall under the sway of others and a need to prove their toughness to the group—raise questions about their suitability for a punishment that the law reserves for a small group of the most morally culpable killers. Minors are thought too immature to sit on a jury, vote, buy beer or watch an X-rated movie, yet they are considered responsible enough to pay for their crimes with their lives.
The case of Joseph Hudgins illustrates all these issues. His rashness, lack of judgment and susceptibility to the domination of others might have brought him to kill 21-year-old police officer Christopher Taylor."
Elon Green is a contributor to Longform.org.
Photograph of Old Sparky courtesy NYS Department of Correctional Services.