REVIEWS: Death Sentences

Death Sentences
Reviewed by Rev. Nibs Stroupe

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 p. 34

Katya Lezin. Finding Life on Death Row: Profiles of Six Inmates, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.

I am opposed to the death penalty, but I understand the primal desire for vengeance. If one of my loved ones were murdered, I would want a shot at revenge. My impulse is nothing new in human history–it is as old as blood feuds or Hammurabi’s Code or Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Katya Lezin’s compelling book speaks directly to this impulse and testifies strongly to the need for opposition to the death penalty.

My opposition to the death penalty comes from moral, political, legal, and religious reasons. The moral ground comes from the dehumanization of those convicted-we must strip them of their humanity in order to kill them. We as part of the state, become the killers, and become what we seek to eliminate. The political ground, as demonstrated so ably in this book, is that the overwhelming majority of those sentenced to die are poor. The death penalty is not a response to murder, it is a response to murder committed by poor people. The legal reason is connected to the political, pointed out bluntly in Lezin’s book: the appalling lack of adequate legal representation of those who are poor and are accused of murder. This reason connects us to the consciousness that is most frightening–far more people than we wish to admit who are convicted and sentenced to death are innocent. The religious ground for me as a minister is simple but fundamental: God is the author of life, and the death penalty violates the Sixth Commandment.

Katya Lezin touches on all of these in this enlightening portrait of six people sentenced to die. It reminds us that they really are people, and how callous our process of convicting and sentencing them is. In doing this, the book does not sentimentalize them or their crimes. Lezin does not choose those who may be innocent, though it is unclear about one person. Innocence is not the issue here state-imposed death is.

Lezin puts the death penalty in its terrible context in our nation’s history. The book is well written but is difficult reading because it is about the power of death: people who are murdered and people who are executed. Yet, it is is also deeply inspirational reading in its portraits of people who bring humanity in a destructive and dehumanizing world: the convicted people who turn out to be people after all; the attorneys who work ceaselessly to save their clients; volunteers and ministers who bring humanity and the possibility of life in the midst of death; family members who remain loyal even when their beloved is convicted of murder; prison staff who try to steer a course between the death machine and retaining their humanity.

Lezin reminds us that the death penalty kills real people. In such a situation, one would think that there would be a meticulous legal process to guard the rights of the accused. What we see is an appalling death machine that tramples on rights and that would be comical if it weren’t so serious and deadly: a defense attorney who is drunk at the trial and held in contempt (and indeed, the next day both attorney and client come from jail to the trial); a defense attorney who calls no witnesses; a prosecuting attorney who has a long record of racial discrimination in jury selection but is never reprimanded. Five of the six defendants in the book had court appointed attorneys who were either callous or incompetent. Four are saved because of the work of committed and competent attorneys, paralegals, and volunteers, all of whom are connected to the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

A recent Columbia University study demonstrated that 67 percent of death cases are overturned nationally, largely related to the issues raised here. The Chicago Tribune study in June of the 131 executions during George W. Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas revealed a cynical disregard for justice, and Finding Life on Death Row testifies to that same process in South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. This book combines the theoretical struggles over the death penalty with portraits of the humanity of those convicted under it. It is compelling reading. It reminds us of our humanity and the humanity of others, and it reminds us of the forces of death that seek to crush that humanity. It is realistic, difficult, and hopeful, and it asks us to take our stands and to be witnesses for life.

Rev. Nibs Stroupe is pastor at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. He is co-author of While We Run This Race: Confronting the Power of Racism in the Southern Church.