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The Last Face You'll Ever See:
The Private Life of the American Death Penalty

by Ivan Solotaroff

ISBN 006017448X / 9780060174484 / 0-06-017448-X
Publisher Harper
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

Donald Hocutt mixed the sulfuric acid bath that dissolved the cyanide that killed Jimmy Lee Gray. It was the first time the gas chamber had been used at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary in 19 years, and it was the beginning of the end for the asphyxiation of death row prisoners. Gray's gruesome death shocked the nation and forced a move to lethal injections, but Hocutt acted as executioner for three more men before the switch. Journalist Ivan Solotaroff spent five years trying to understand the motive behind the death penalty by looking at executioners themselves, asking where and when and how, and the more difficult questions: Why do they do it and why do they want to do it? He interviewed men on death row, such as Wilbert Rideau and Douglas Dennis, editors of the acclaimed magazine The Angolite, who speak with remarkable eloquence, as well as witnesses to executions, such as Watt Espy, America's foremost historian of executions, who remarked, "I believe that more than one person dies with each execution." But most of those five years were spent with Hocutt and his one-time superior warden Donald Cabana. The two men had polar responses to their role as executioners--Hocutt, who used his violent disposition to control inmates, embraced his duty, while Cabana befriended the condemned to ease their passage--but both were ultimately broken by the ordeal.

Solotaroff creates an intimate picture of these men's lives while presenting an unflinching account of execution. His purpose is not to argue for or against the death penalty, but rather to question the real motive behind it: do Americans pursue the death penalty for deterrence or punishment, to rid a society of a blight, or is it "something altogether different--an expression of an irrational urge far more subterranean than the will to justice"? This is a finely written and humane examination of a rare breed of people and of an act clouded by a strange brew of sensationalism and obscurity. Solotaroff has grappled with the hardest questions--of vengeance and responsibility--and though he doesn't pretend to have found the answers, what he does reveal is thought-provoking and indelibly unsettling. --Lesley Reed [via]