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A Review of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. and Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. on the Death Penalty


Friday, Jan. 18, 2002
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Representative Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., Bruce Shapiro, Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future (The New Press: 2001)

Recent events have proved that coalitions of nations can make for successful wars against Middle Eastern tyrants; coalitions of states can make for successful antitrust actions against megalithic monopolists; and coalitions of warlords may even make for successful interim government in moderation-starved post-Taliban Afghanistan. But as Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America's Future makes plain, books authored by coalition do not make for very satisfying reading.

The book's dust-jacket reveals that Legal Lynching is the handiwork not only of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., and his son, Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., but also of Nation contributor Bruce Shapiro. Moreover, the acknowledgements indicate that additional assistance was provided by Representative Jackson's congressional staff and the staff of the Rainbow/PUSH organization, among others. Legal Lynching thus appears to be the quintessential literary group effort.

At the heart of the book is the authors' contention that "death penalty opponents now have an opportunity to build a true majority to end the American capital punishment nightmare." As a handbook for activists pursuing that cause, Legal Lynching may prove moderately useful. It compiles the arguments against the death penalty in easily digestible form, while supplying a human face to many of them, and it leavens its policy rhetoric with occasional sprinklings of history, theory, and theology. But as a personal reflection on one of the most divisive moral and political issues of our day, co-authored by a leading religious statesman, the book fails.

A List of Familiar Anti-Death Penalty Arguments

The book - actually, hard-cover pamphlet would be a more accurate description - trots out familiar arguments against the death penalty. They are indisputably true, but their compilation here is unlikely to change any death penalty proponent's mind.

Familiar or not, the bill of particulars against the death penalty makes for unsettling reading: Innocent persons die each year in the state's accelerating rush to execution. The death-penalty system is corrupted by incompetent, underpaid defense attorneys who sleep or booze their way through trials. Over-ambitious prosecutors look at executions as another notch on their belts. Defendants are convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of flimsy evidence, jailhouse confessions, and unreliable eyewitness identifications. Rights of appeal are ever more restricted, and there is decreasing hope that the Supreme Court's hardened heart will soften in the face of death-row inmates' last minute pleas, despite the fact that documented racism infects the decision-making process at every level in the system.

What the book lacks in freshness is, in part, made up for with several real-life stories that bring life to the rhetoric.

The authors tell the story, for instance, of George McFarland, sentenced to death by a Texas jury just four days after opening statements in his trial were made, whose defense attorney slept throughout the proceedings. According to newspaper accounts, when asked if he truly had fallen asleep during his client's capital trial, McFarland's lawyer replied: "It's boring." Despite his mockery of a trial, McFarland attempts at appeal have proved unavailing.

They also tell the story of Brian Baldwin, a 17-year old boy charged with the 1977 rape and murder of 16-year old Naomi Rolon, who met with his defense attorney for all of 20 minutes prior to a one-and-one-half day trial. The jury that sentenced Baldwin to die never learned that his "confession" was elicited with the help of beatings and a cattle prod. Neither did the jury learn that bloodstained clothes were found belonging to Edmund Horsley, Baldwin's co-defendant and principal accuser, but Baldwin's own clothes tested negative for blood. Indeed, not even a subsequent signed confession from Horsley and a brief filed by 33 prosecutors and judges on Baldwin's behalf, could save Baldwin from the electric chair.

The authors provide an interesting challenge to victim rights advocates by pointing to murder-victim survivors such as Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. Welch opposed imposition of the death penalty on confessed bomber Timothy McVeigh because he felt that "God only knows there's been enough bloodshed," but prosecutors refused to allow him to testify. The authors argue that the views of victims like Welch, who oppose the death penalty, are discounted and ignored by prosecutors seeking to advance their own agendas.

In the end, perhaps the hero of the story is Illinois Governor George Ryan, who, unsettled by DNA tests vindicating death row inmates, in January 2000 unilaterally imposed a moratorium in Illinois on executions pending a review of that state's death penalty procedures. Using the Illinois moratorium as a model, the authors conclude with a call for passage of a bill co-sponsored by Representative Jackson imposing a moratorium on all federal executions, and urging other states to follow suit. (The text of the bill is "conveniently" reprinted in the final 20 pages of this slim volume.)

Rhetoric But No Soul

The debating points are handily recounted, but the implicit promise of the book--that the authors might provide a more personal, heartfelt account of their opposition to the death penalty, perhaps drawing on Reverend Jackson's relationships with religious leaders worldwide, is not kept.

For instance, despite a chapter devoted to "Faith and the Death Penalty," nowhere does Reverend Jackson provide any insight into the enduring appeal of the death penalty among the members of the religious right. None of the authors feels the need to share with the reader any personal soul-searching - perhaps because the authors' anti-death penalty views are not surprising, or perhaps because the book was drafted by too many political staffers with too little to do between elections.

While proclaiming the argument open-and-shut, the authors do concede that "it remains a large challenge to convince church members and the general public of the moral, social, and economic bankruptcy of continuing to pursue a death-penalty policy." But for those who cling to a literal reading of the biblical injunction to take "an eye for an eye," they do less convincing, themselves, than they ideally might have, in the course of Legal Lynching.

Russell Dean Covey is an attorney at the Washington, D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly LLP. The views expressed are his own.

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