The Death Of The American Death Penalty:
States Still Leading The Way

The Death Of The American Death Penalty: States Still Leading The Way

Authors: Larry W. Koch, Colin Wark and John F. Galliher
Publisher: Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2012. 256p.
Reviewer: Nicholas Petersen | May 2013

In this timely follow-up to Galliher, et al.’s America Without the Death Penalty, Koch, Wark, and Galliher trace America’s abolitionist history from a social movement’s perspective. Given the recent repeal of capital punishment in several states, this book offers a much-needed account of the socio-cultural forces that have contributed to this selective demise of America’s death penalty to date, and attends as well to those forces poised to shape forthcoming repeal initiatives. Part I reviews the history of abolitionism from early repeal efforts to more recent successes culminating from concerns over racial bias, wrongful convictions, and capital-costs. Part II chronicles abolition “near misses,” illustrating how the lessons learned from these stories can help to advance future repeal efforts. Part III then connects these seemingly disparate abolitionist histories by highlighting the impact that religion, economics, and politics have had and will continue to have on the death penalty debate. The book concludes with provocative forecasts about the fate of America’s death penalty.

Drawing from a wide range of sources, including media accounts, original interviews, and archival documents, Koch, et al. provide a rich description of America’s love-hate relationship with the death penalty. While each chapter offers a unique story of its own, the book is woven together by a common thread: death penalty politics are temporally-geographically contingent, and thus open to being contested. As the authors vividly illustrate, abolition often hinges on the convergence of structural factors (i.e., religion, economics, politics, etc.) and unforeseen events (i.e., public outrage over botched executions or miscarriages of justice, economic crises, political newcomers, etc.) in time and space. Such insights are not only relevant to the socio-legal and criminological literatures, but also to those interested in advancing repeal initiatives.

The authors tackle some of the most contentious death penalty debates head-on, showing how many pro-death penalty arguments have lost substantial ground in recent years. The book’s socio-historical approach helps readers grasp the complex, and ever evolving, relationship between capital punishment and religion. Traditionally, Judeo-Christian principles have been used to justify capital punishment, yet changes in religious attitudes have united abolitionists and Catholics in the contemporary period. Despite the fact that McCleskey v. Kemp severely limited the efficacy of empirically-grounded legal challenges to the death penalty, Koch et al.’s careful reading of official reports and hearing transcripts indicates that social science has been central to legislative abolition efforts. Researchers have helped to challenge many of the oft-cited death penalty rationales by exposing racial biases within the system, wrongful convictions, trial and appeal costs, and weaknesses in deterrence-based arguments. These empirical insights, coupled with shifts in religious sentiment, have led to a decline in public support for the death penalty — paving the way for further advances.

This is an important read for those interested in understanding the intricacies of abolition efforts historically and today. While writings on the death penalty abound, few works offer such a nuanced and well-rounded portrayal of the dynamics behind abolitionism. In addition to being thoroughly researched, the book is written in jargon-free prose, making it accessible to academics and laypersons alike. For these reasons, and many more, this book makes a significant contribution to the death penalty literature.

Nicholas Petersen, Ph.D. student, Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine

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