978-0-380-79246-7 / 9780380792467

Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions


Publisher:Harper Perennial



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About the book:

Capital punishment is popular in the United States: the public supports it overwhelmingly, skeptical politicians are afraid to challenge it publicly, and the execution rate continues to soar (it increased by about 800 percent during the 1990s). So authors Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell will raise eyebrows when they write: "We believe [capital punishment] will come to an end fairly soon." They're advocates of abolition ("We have opposed capital punishment for many years"), but they've tried hard to become dispassionate analysts on these pages. After four years of research, they're convinced that Americans are deeply conflicted on the issue rather than cheerleaders for death. "The public embraces the death penalty in theory, but in practice they look at it with an increasingly critical eye," the authors write.

Lifton and Mitchell begin by examining how three states--California, Massachusetts, and Missouri--handle the death penalty. In succeeding chapters, they provide a history of state-sponsored execution in the United States and describe the various ways the killing is done, from lethal injection (the most common form of execution) to hanging (yes, hanging--that's how Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington put people to death) and firing squads (in Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah). They also provide an in-depth look at the people involved in executions, from the criminals themselves to the families of murder victims to the folks in the criminal-justice system: prosecutors, judges, wardens, chaplains, and so on. The opponents of capital punishment often make the mistake of appearing to champion evildoers, either by denying their guilt or minimizing the harm they have done. Who Owns Death? avoids this fatal flaw (it is dedicated, in part, "to the families of murder victims"). Open-minded readers who want to explore what the death penalty really is--and Lifton and Mitchell think there are many more of these people than is commonly assumed--may walk away from it rethinking their own beliefs. --John J. Miller

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