Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

In a passion it broke, I pull the black from the grey… Skip @Atlantic_Ctr’s ‘A Descending Spiral’

John Johnson was a shy child.  He was doing well at school until his father lost his job and became a violent alcoholic, and then his mother died of tuberculosis, and then the local saw mill closed down, pushing the entire region into an economic depression.  As Johnson grew up, he made friends with the wrong kind of kid, and he self-medicated his shyness with drugs and petty thefts.  Then, one day, Johnson was walking along the road humming a jaunty tune, when he accidentally tripped over, tied up eight people, and shot them all in the back of the head.  He was sentenced to death.  The appellate court refused to mitigate the sentence, noting Johnson had previously been convicted of a string of aggravated sexual assaults and two other murders.

If the above paragraph convinces you that the death penalty is wrong and should be abolished, then you are going to love Marc Bookman’s A Descending Spiral.  Anecdote after grisly, unrelenting anecdote about absolutely horrible crimes motivated by the unexamined assumption that the stories show that the death penalty is wrong.  For literally everybody else in the world, this is a frustrating, irrational, and emotionally exhausting series of stories written in a ‘true crime podcast style’.

The author, Marc Bookman, is opposed to the death penalty.  He’s the executive director of the Atlantic Centre for Capital Representation, a non-profit resource centre for defendants.  Bookman has spent his life defending people accused of horrible crimes and has, no doubt, been ringside to some less than outstanding behaviour from police, prosecutors, and judges.

A Descending Spiral makes sense from that perspective: here are the sorts of cases that motivate Bookman to do his job and maintain his opposition to the death penalty.  Here are the stories that help Bookman to sustain his passion.

The book, however, is marketed as something different:

With a voice that is both literary and journalistic, the veteran capital defense lawyer and seven-time Best American Essays “notable” author exposes the dark absurdities and fatal inanities that undermine the logic of the death penalty wherever it still exists. In essays that cover seemingly “ordinary” capital cases over the last thirty years, Bookman shows how violent crime brings out our worst human instincts—revenge, fear, retribution, and prejudice. Combining these emotions with the criminal legal system’s weaknesses—purposely ineffective, arbitrary, or widely infected with racism and misogyny—is a recipe for injustice.

The book does none of these things.  In a lengthy–very lengthy–discussion about a defendant who ate his own eye, the reasonable reader is left with an answered question: what punishment is actually suitable here?  What options do we have as a society for punishing people who are not only unwell but are never going to be well?  There are no answers here.  Mysteriously, there’s not even the answer: ‘The death penalty is inappropriate here.’  Bookman never finishes any of the arguments that he sets up.  The reader is exposed to some of the worst of human behaviour–manifested usually in the behaviour of the defendants rather than the State execution process–and then the chapter ends and he moves on to another case.  It is punishing and purposeless.

Worse, Bookman raises complex issues that cry out for examination, but he is so single-minded in his task that he misses obvious problems.  One of his anecdotes includes material from an interview with one of the jurors.  The juror says that they knew that the defendant was guilty, but didn’t know precisely what the defendant was guilty of, and so voted guilty.

Hang on.  No matter what your view is of the death penalty, something has gone wrong when jurors are given the option of thinking a person is generally guilty of something and so find them specifically guilty of the accused crime.  Bookman, oddly, thinks that this shows a problem with the death penalty and seems to be arguing (although not clearly) that the defendant should have received life imprisonment instead.  But it’s clear to any fair-minded reader here that the defendant shouldn’t have been found guilty at all…

The lack of conceptual framework to the book opens it to obvious rebuttals.  The person who advocates for the death penalty could easily concede that every story raised in the book is an example where any punishment was inappropriate, not merely the death penalty, and then respond with clear-cut examples of cases that are not infected by the problems raised by Bookman’s case studies.

Further–and worse–the advocate of the death penalty could use the examples given in this book to show why the death penalty is preferable to life imprisonment.  In the example given above, the juror voted guilty on the understanding that the defendant was going to be sentenced to life imprisonment.  If the juror only had the option of the death penalty, would they still have courted their level of doubt about the defendant’s guilt?  In another example from the book, a person is wrongly given a life sentence due to what seems to be a coerced confession and it completely destroys their life–they go to their mother’s funeral in handcuffs and anklecuffs.  Here, the moral equivalence of life imprisonment and the death penalty is clearest: although the wrongly convicted can be released, they can never get back their lost life.

When I expressed frustration with the book on Twitter, the Atlantic Centre for Capital Representation responded that they wanted me to change my opinion so that more people would read the book.  The tweet really captures what’s wrong with the book: it doesn’t know how to talk to people who disagree to persuade them, and doesn’t understand that people could rationally disagree to engage discussion with them.  The views of advocates of the death penalty are presented in the book as shadowy, disembodied views, always in their most extreme and unreasonable presentation.  For example, according to the book, advocates of the death penalty are anti-appeals.  This is obviously an absurd straw man, but we never ever get a serious thesis statement from the viewpoint Bookman wants to discredit.

The book is vapid, unpleasant, and exhausting, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.


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