The Unfinished March

The Unfinished March

Reviewed by John Cole Vodicka

Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000 pp. 36-37

William S. McFeely, Proximity to Death, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.

During the past year the debate over capital punishment has intensified and it appears that many Americans are beginning to seriously question whether the US should continue to execute members of our society.

In recent months we’ve been made aware of the alarming number of innocent people condemned to death; seen a study showing that two-thirds of all death sentences in the U.S. are reversed on appeal because of serious prejudicial trial errors; read about mentally ill and juvenile defendants who are exposed to execution; heard eyewitnesses tell us that condemned men and women have been literally tortured to death when the execution apparatus malfunctions; and have had confirmed that there still exists tremendous racial disparity in who the State determines can live and who must die.

Even some of the most conservative, law-and-order voices among us seem troubled by the United States’ rush to execute. Earlier this year the National Review published a front page article subtitled, A Conservative Case Against Capital Punishment” Columnists George Will and James Kilpatrick have called for a reexamination of our use of the death penalty. The conservative Christian Pat Robertson and other Christian Coalition leaders have intervened on behalf of condemned prisoners. And most dramatically, Illinois’ Republican Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in his state after more than a dozen death row convicts were found to be innocent; Ryan has said he doubts there will be anyone executed in Illinois while he remains governor.

All this hopeful news brings to mind what I thought was an overly-optimistic comment a colleague of mine made twenty years ago when executions were being rapidly carded out and public sentiment favoring the death penalty was hovering around 90 percent “Support for capital punishment may be a mile wide,” my friend said, “but it is only an inch deep.”

William S. McFeely’s latest book, Proximity to Death, an intimate chronicle of a Georgia-based law project’s valiant and often successful efforts to save condemned prisoners in the South, ought to further aid in the death penalty abolitionists’ goal to change the hearts and minds of those who still believe in the legitimacy of death as punishment.

McFeely–a noted historian who was the Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities, emeritus, at the

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University of Georgia, and is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Grant, as well as Frederick Douglass and Sapelo’s People–makes a convincing argument for the abolition of the death penalty mostly by telling stories about the work of the Southern Center for Human Rights, a small cadre of lawyers and investigators “living in one corner of the country to carry a large responsibility …who are on the unfinished march toward racial justice.”

McFeely’s own introduction to the Southern Center’s work came when he agreed to testify in the death penalty sentencing trial of Georgia prisoner Carzell Moore. Steve Bright, the Center’s director and one of this country’s most brilliant death penalty abolitionist lawyers, wanted McFeely to tell the jury about the racist origins of the Georgia state flag (which contains the old Confederate symbol and is displayed prominently in every Georgia courtroom) and to talk about the history of lynchings in Georgia. Carzell Moore is a black man and Bright always insists that juries and judges hear about the region’s brutal racial history–“a century-long chain of killings of black men by white men”, as McFeely describes it–while connecting it to present-day Georgia, where robed members of the Ku Klux Klan still celebrate in front of the prison when executions occur, where black men are eleven times more likely to receive the death penalty than white men, and where, of Georgia’s 59 district attorneys, all are white but one.

Driving away from the Carzell Moore trial and traveling back to Athens, Georgia, McFeely thinks aloud about what he’s just witnessed: “As a historian, I deal with events safely in the past. It is not simply that I’ve had a glimpse into the world of the courtroom; rather, I hear the old nineteenth-century issues of race and inhumanity that I’ve written about before reverberating from today’s courtroom walls.” McFeely comes to understand that the anti-death penalty effort in the South is not far apart from the antislavery movement 160 years ago.

From this point on McFeely decides to spend more and more time with Steve Bright and his Southern Center cohorts, traveling throughout Georgia and Alabama, sitting in courtrooms, visiting the Center’s condemned clients in prisons, talking with jurors who held some of these prisoners’ lives in their hands during trial, meeting with and discussing the death penalty with defense lawyers, district attorneys, judges, newspaper editors, and others who are enmeshed in the capital punishment ritual, each in “proximity to death.”

We’re introduced to nearly all who work out of the Southern Center’s Atlanta office, who McFeely calls the “protectors of life, lawyers fighting to overturn the Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye.” We sit in courtrooms or prison visitation rooms with McFeely and four of the prisoners the Center represents–Kenny Smith, Tony Amadeo, William Brooks, and Carzell Moore–and learn of these prisoners’ humanity, their remorse for the horrible crimes they committed, their longing to live, even if it is in prison, and make things right. (“My clients are more than the worst things they ever did in their lives,” Bright tells McFeely.) We meet, all too briefly, some of the early heroes of Georgia’s anti-death penalty movement before Steve Bright and the Southern Center for Human Rights appeared on the scene: Millard Farmer, Patsy Morris, Gary Parker, and George Kendall, are but a few.

By the book’s conclusion the reader cannot help but admire the courage, tenacity, and compassion of everyone connected to the Southern Center for Human Rights. Not only have we gotten to know them and those they are trying to save from execution, but we have also been given story after story and reason upon reason to rid our country of the death penalty.

“For a nation capable of better to allow its states to take one life as revenge for another life is to practice violence. not combat it,” McFeely concludes. “The death penalty is the very antithesis of Civility. It represents a yielding to hatred in a world too full of hatred and killing.”

There have been nearly six-hundred executions carried out in the U.S. since 1983; today nearly four-thousand men and women occupy death row cells across the land. Yet McFeely–like my colleague who twenty years ago estimated support for the death penalty was “only an inch deep” is optimistic that one day capital punishment will be no more, thanks in large part to the people at the Southern Center for Human Rights, “who will not go away…this tiny band finally will not be beaten.”

William S. McFeely’s Proximity to Death, is a powerful little book that both disturbs and inspires. It does indeed give the reader hope that capital punishment will one day be abandoned.

John Cole Vodicka is head of the Prison and Jail Project in Americus, Georgia.