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America's Death Penalty

America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present

David Garland
Randall McGowen
Michael Meranze
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 241
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  • Book Info
    America's Death Penalty
    Book Description:

    Over the past three decades, the United States has embraced the death penalty with tenacious enthusiasm. While most of those countries whose legal systems and cultures are normally compared to the United States have abolished capital punishment, the United States continues to employ this ultimate tool of punishment. The death penalty has achieved an unparalleled prominence in our public life and left an indelible imprint on our politics and culture. It has also provoked intense scholarly debate, much of it devoted to explaining the roots of American exceptionalism.

    America's Death Penaltytakes a different approach to the issue by examining the historical and theoretical assumptions that have underpinned the discussion of capital punishment in the United States today. At various times the death penalty has been portrayed as an anachronism, an inheritance, or an innovation, with little reflection on the consequences that flow from the choice of words. This volume represents an effort to restore the sense of capital punishment as a question caught up in history. Edited by leading scholars of crime and justice, these original essays pursue different strategies for unsettling the usual terms of the debate. In particular, the authors use comparative and historical investigations of both Europe and America in order to cast fresh light on familiar questions about the meaning of capital punishment. This volume is essential reading for understanding the death penalty in America.

    Contributors:David Garland, Douglas Hay, Randall McGowen, Michael Meranze, Rebecca McLennan, and Jonathan Simon.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3304-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Introduction: Getting the Question Right? Ways of Thinking about the Death Penalty
    (pp. 1-29)

    In recent years the death penalty has lost none of its power to arouse powerful emotions or to produce heated debates. Indeed, the question of capital punishment has secured greater prominence, as it has become one of the defining issues in the campaign to promote recognition of international human rights. The result has been the transformation of a debate largely taking place within national political contexts and arising mainly within Western culture into a cause that leaders of all nations feel compelled to address. Debates at the United Nations, discussions before various human rights conventions, as well as the attention...

  5. 2 Modes of Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty in Historical Perspective
    (pp. 30-71)

    Capital punishment has been practiced in most known societies over the course of human history. In modern liberal democracies, however, the legitimacy and effectiveness of the institution have increasingly come into question. In these nations, with their commitment to limiting state violence, promoting social welfare, and respecting human dignity, the death penalty exists, if it does, in tension with important political institutions and cultural commitments. Where not altogether abolished—as it is throughout Europe and most of the western world—such societies now use the death penalty much less often and in forms that are increasingly restrained and refined.


  6. 3 The Death Penalty: Between Law, Sovereignty, and Biopolitics
    (pp. 72-105)

    For several decades the penal practices and policies of the United States and the countries of Western Europe have diverged in surprising and notable ways. With the relative exception of Great Britain, none of the European countries has taken so strenuously the path of mass imprisonment. Nor have any European countries continued to deploy the death penalty. Indeed, the European Union now makes the abolition of the death penalty a condition of membership and officers of the Union press for the extension of abolition throughout the world. In the realm of common penality at least, European identity has turned on...

  7. 4 Through the Wrong End of the Telescope: History, the Death Penalty, and the American Experience
    (pp. 106-128)

    I begin this essay with a familiar image: an optical instrument meant to help us investigate distant phenomena. Yet the telescope, if used inappropriately, can produce a fundamental misperception about the relationship of an object to the viewer. Similarly history has come to figure prominently in discussions of the place of capital punishment in the contemporary world, especially when trying to explain the seeming gulf between America’s enthusiastic embrace of the death penalty and Europe’s recent rejection of the practice. Increasingly scholars have turned to the American past in an effort to explain what appears to be a puzzling exception.¹...

  8. 5 Hanging and the English Judges: The Judicial Politics of Retention and Abolition
    (pp. 129-165)

    The legislative history of capital punishment extends over centuries in England, colonial America, and the United States. We see great increases in the number of capital statutes in some periods, sharp reductions in others, and, ultimately, abolition in England and the other parts of the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. There were also significant shifts in the numbers and proportion of death sentences actually carried out. That the United States has for the most part retained capital punishment into the twenty-first century invites comparisons, and explanations, of the differences in that long history.

    This chapter...

  9. 6 Interposition: Segregation, Capital Punishment, and the Forging of the Post–New Deal Political Leader
    (pp. 166-190)

    Historians and political scientists have long viewed Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” as a watershed period in American political development that created a fundamental new political order, one that dominated politics and transformed American governance for at least forty years from roughly 1936 to 1976.¹ More recently sociologists of punishment have suggested that the roots of America’s turn toward hyper-punitive mass incarceration policies since 1980 mark the emergence of a post–New Deal political order, formed in large part around fear of crime.² Crime, or fear of crime, became a key construct, and the crime victim, a key figure, around which...

  10. 7 The Convict’s Two Lives: Civil and Natural Death in the American Prison
    (pp. 191-220)

    In 1870 the warden and agent of the Virginia State Penitentiary at Richmond dispatched several dozen male prisoners to forced labor camps owned and operated by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company in Bath County, some miles from Richmond.¹ That summer, while toiling on the railroad tracks beneath the hot Virginia sun, several of these prison laborers—including twenty-year-old Woody Ruffin, a former slave from Petersburg—made a break for freedom. The railroad company’s overseers thwarted their escape but not before one of the guards, Lewis F. Swats, had been killed.² Upon recapture, the prisoners were immediately returned to the...

  11. About the Contributors
    (pp. 221-222)
  12. Index
    (pp. 223-232)