Capital Letters sheds new light on how literature has dealt with society’s most violent legal institution, the death penalty. It investigates this question through the works of three major French authors with markedly distinct political convictions and literary styles: Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Albert Camus. Working at the intersection of poetics, ethics, and law, Ève Morisi uncovers an unexpected transhistorical dialogue on both the modern death penalty and the ends and means of literature after the French Revolution. Through close textual analysis, careful contextualization, and the critique of violence forged by Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, and René Girard, Morisi reveals that, despite their differences, Hugo, Baudelaire, and Camus converged in questioning France’s humanitarian redefinition of capital punishment dating from the late eighteenth century. Conversely, capital justice led all three writers to interrogate the functions, tools, and limits of their art. Capital Letters shows that the key modern debate on the political and moral responsibility, or autonomy, of literature crystallizes around the death penalty in works whose form disturbs the commonly accepted divide between aestheticism and engagement.
The death penalty arouses our passions as does few other issues. Some view taking another person's life as just and reasonable punishment while others see it as an inhumane and barbaric act. But the intensity of feeling that capital punishment provokes often obscures its long and varied history in this country.
Now, for the first time, we have a comprehensive history of the death penalty in the United States. Law professor Stuart Banner tells the story of how, over four centuries, dramatic changes have taken place in the ways capital punishment has been administered and experienced. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the penalty was standard for a laundry list of crimes--from adultery to murder, from arson to stealing horses. Hangings were public events, staged before audiences numbering in the thousands, attended by women and men, young and old, black and white alike. Early on, the gruesome spectacle had explicitly religious purposes--an event replete with sermons, confessions, and last minute penitence--to promote the salvation of both the condemned and the crowd. Through the nineteenth century, the execution became desacralized, increasingly secular and private, in response to changing mores. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ironically, as it has become a quiet, sanitary, technological procedure, the death penalty is as divisive as ever.
By recreating what it was like to be the condemned, the executioner, and the spectator, Banner moves beyond the debates, to give us an unprecedented understanding of capital punishment's many meanings. As nearly four thousand inmates are now on death row, and almost one hundred are currently being executed each year, the furious debate is unlikely to diminish. The Death Penalty is invaluable in understanding the American way of the ultimate punishment.
Table of Contents:
1. Terror, Blood, and Repentance 2. Hanging Day 3. Degrees of Death 4. The Origins of Opposition 5. Northern Reform, Southern Retention 6. Into the Jail Yard 7. Technological Cures 8. Decline 9. To the Supreme Court 10. Resurrection
Epilogue Appendix: Counting Executions Notes Acknowledgments Index
Reviews of this book: [Banner] deftly balances history and politics, crafting a book that will be valuable to anyone interested in knowing more about capital punishment, no matter what his or her views are on the ethical issues surrounding the topic. --David Pitt, Booklist
Reviews of this book: In this well-researched and clear account...Banner charts how and why this country went from having one of the world's mildest punitive systems to one of its harshest. --Publishers Weekly
Reviews of this book: Stuart Banner's book is fine and balanced and important. His lucid history of this grim subject is scrupulously accurate...It is refreshingly free of the tendentiousness and the sensationalism that this subject invites. --Richard A. Posner, New Republic
Reviews of this book: [The] contrast between the past and the present can now be seen with great clarity thanks to...Stuart Banner and his comprehensive book, The Death Penalty...American historians have been slow to undertake anything like a full-scale study of the subject...Banner's book does much to fill [the gaps]. His book is an important and comprehensive...treatment of the topic. --Hugo Adam Bedau, Boston Review
Reviews of this book: Despite the gruesome nature of the book's topic, it is difficult to stop reading. Banner's research is fascinating, his writing style compelling. Given the emotional nature of the subject (few people known to me are wishy-washy about whether the death penalty is moral or immoral), Banner walks the line of neutrality skillfully, without seeming evasive. --Steve Weinberg, Legal Times
Reviews of this book: Stuart Banner's The Death Penalty is a tour de force, remarkable for its neutrality as it traces the ways in which the death penalty has been applied, and for what kinds of crimes, from the Colonial era to the present. Banner...writes like a historian who believes perspective is best gained by dispassionately setting out what happened and letting everyone come to his or her own conclusions. I think, in this book, that works wonderfully. On a subject in which emotions run so high, it seems awfully useful to have a dispassionate voice. After all, if Banner allowed his own feelings on the death penalty--pro, con or somewhere in the middle--to be known, the book easily could be dismissed as a diatribe. He doesn't, and it can't. --Judith Neuman Beck, San Jose Mercury News
Reviews of this book: Law professor Banner...offers a persuasive examination of the evolution of capital punishment from Colonial times onward. He makes clear that the death penalty has possessed generally consistent support from the US populace, although changes in the sensibilities of juries, executioners, legal theoreticians, and judges have occurred...Highly recommended. --R. C. Cottrell, Choice
Reviews of this book: Stuart Banner aptly illustrates in The Death Penalty, like the nation, the death penalty has changed with the times...Banner's account spotlights a number of interesting trends in American history...Mostly evenhanded in the tour he provides through the history of the death penalty and its role in and reflection of American society, he has managed to provide an accessible look at what is a profoundly controversial and complicated subject. --Steven Martinovich, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
Reviews of this book: "For centuries," Stuart Banner tells us, "Americans had been proud to possess a criminal-justice system that made less use of the death penalty than just about any other place on the globe, including the countries of western Europe." But no longer. Now we possess "one of the harshest criminal codes in the world." The Death Penalty helps explain that turnaround, but only in the course of a complicated story in which different factors emerge at different times to play often unforeseeable roles...[This is a] superbly told history. --Paul Rosenberg, Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
Reviews of this book: Stuart Banner's lucid, richly researched book brings us, for the first time, a comprehensive history of American capital punishment from colonial times to the present. He describes the practices that characterized the institution at different periods, elucidates their ritual purposes and social meanings, and identifies the forces that led to their transformation. The book's well-ordered narrative is interspersed with individual case histories, that give flesh and blood to the account. --David Garland, Times Literary Supplement
Reviews of this book: [An] informative, even-handed, chillingly fascinating account of why and how the U.S. government and many state governments decided to sponsor executions of criminals--even though innocent defendants might die, too. --Jane Henderson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Reviews of this book: Stuart Banner's The Death Penalty is a splendidly objective achievement. Delightfully written, free of academic pretense, liberally sprinkled with apt references from contemporary sources, the book exhaustively explores the multifaceted evolution of America's penal practices. --Elsbeth Bothe, Baltimore Sun
The Death Penalty is certain to be the definitive account of the American experience with capital punishment, from its beginnings in the seventeenth century, to the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001. This is a first rate piece of scholarship: well written, deeply researched, fascinating to read, and full of insights and good common sense. It is, in my view, one of the finest books to deal with this troubled and troubling subject. Historical and legal scholarship owe a debt of gratitude to Stuart Banner. --Lawrence Friedman, Stanford Law School
A masterful book. This is a long overdue account which fills a huge gap in our understanding of America's long and complex relationship to state killing. With meticulous scholarship and lucid prose, Banner has written a compelling account of the place of capital punishment in our society. It sets the standard for all future scholarship on the history of the death penalty in America. --Austin Sarat, author of When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition
The Death Penalty, a study we have badly needed, is the first history of the nation's engagement--as well as its disengagement--with capital punishment from the country's earliest days to the present. With a sure grasp of the constitutional issues, Stuart Banner greatly advances a conversation at last underway about the rightness of putting people to death for having inflicted a death. Banner's greatest and most useful feat is remaining dispassionate on a subject that he cares deeply about--as do a growing number of his fellow Americans. --William S. McFeely, author of Proximity to Death
The Death Penalty beautifully explains the changing paths traveled by supporters and opponents of capital punishment over the years. It explores a subject of enormous symbolic importance to Americans today, linking our views about the death penalty to our larger concerns about crime. --David Oshinsky, author of "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
Banner's book is a superbly detailed and textured social history of a subject too often treated in legal abstractions. It demonstrates how capital punishment has gnawed at the conscience and imagination of Americans, and how it has challenged their efforts to define themselves culturally, politically, and racially. --Robert Weisberg, Stanford Law School
The Death Penalty, Volume I
Jacques Derrida University of Chicago Press, 2013 Library of Congress HV8698.D4713 2014 | Dewey Decimal 364.6601
In this newest installment in Chicago’s series of Jacques Derrida’s seminars, the renowned philosopher attempts one of his most ambitious goals: the first truly philosophical argument against the death penalty. While much has been written against the death penalty, Derrida contends that Western philosophy is massively, if not always overtly, complicit with a logic in which a sovereign state has the right to take a life. Haunted by this notion, he turns to the key places where such logic has been established—and to the place it has been most effectively challenged: literature.
With his signature genius and patient yet dazzling readings of an impressive breadth of texts, Derrida examines everything from the Bible to Plato to Camus to Jean Genet, with special attention to Kant and post–World War II juridical texts, to draw the landscape of death penalty discourses. Keeping clearly in view the death rows and execution chambers of the United States, he shows how arguments surrounding cruel and unusual punishment depend on what he calls an “anesthesial logic,” which has also driven the development of death penalty technology from the French guillotine to lethal injection. Confronting a demand for philosophical rigor, he pursues provocative analyses of the shortcomings of abolitionist discourse. Above all, he argues that the death penalty and its attendant technologies are products of a desire to put an end to one of the most fundamental qualities of our finite existence: the radical uncertainty of when we will die.
Arriving at a critical juncture in history—especially in the United States, one of the last Christian-inspired democracies to resist abolition—The Death Penalty is both a timely response to an important ethical debate and a timeless addition to Derrida’s esteemed body of work.
The Death Penalty, Volume II
Jacques Derrida University of Chicago Press, 2017 Library of Congress HV8698.D4713 2014 | Dewey Decimal 364.6601
In the first volume of his extraordinary analysis of the death penalty, Jacques Derrida began a journey toward an ambitious end: the first truly philosophical argument against the death penalty. Exploring an impressive breadth of thought, he traced a deeply entrenched logic throughout the whole of Western philosophy that has justified the state’s right to take a life. He also marked literature as a crucial place where this logic has been most effectively challenged. In this second and final volume, Derrida builds on these analyses toward a definitive argument against capital punishment.
Of central importance in this second volume is Kant’s explicit justification of the death penalty in the Metaphysics of Morals. Thoroughly deconstructing Kant’s position—which holds the death penalty as exemplary of the eye-for-an-eye Talionic law—Derrida exposes numerous damning contradictions and exceptions. Keeping the current death penalty in the United States in view, he further explores the “anesthesial logic” he analyzed in volume one, addressing the themes of cruelty and pain through texts by Robespierre and Freud, reading Heidegger, and—in a fascinating, improvised final session—the nineteenth-century Spanish Catholic thinker Donoso Cortés. Ultimately, Derrida shows that the rationality of the death penalty as represented by Kant involves an imposition of knowledge and calculability on a fundamental condition of non-knowledge—that we don’t otherwise know what or when our deaths will be. In this way, the death penalty acts out a phantasm of mastery over one’s own death.
Derrida’s thoughts arrive at a particular moment in history: when the death penalty in the United States is the closest it has ever been to abolition, and yet when the arguments on all sides are as confused as ever. His powerful analysis will prove to be a paramount contribution to this debate as well as a lasting entry in his celebrated oeuvre.
Could you forgive the murderer of your husband? Your mother? Your son?
Families of murder victims are often ardent and very public supporters of the death penalty. But the people whose stories appear in this book have chosen instead to forgive their loved ones’ murderers, and many have developed personal relationships with the killers and have even worked to save their lives. They have formed a nationwide group, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR), to oppose the death penalty.
MVFR members are often treated as either saints or lunatics, but the truth is that they are neither. They are ordinary people who have responded to an extraordinary and devastating tragedy with courage and faith, choosing reconciliation over retribution, healing over hatred. Believing that the death penalty is a form of social violence that only repeats and perpetuates the violence that claimed their loved one’s lives, they hold out the hope of redemption even for those who have committed the most hideous crimes.
Weaving third-person narrative with wrenching first-hand accounts, King presents the stories of ten MVFR members. Each is a heartrending tale of grief, soul searching, and of the challenge to choose forgiveness instead of revenge. These stories, which King sets in the context of the national discussion over the death penalty debate and restorative versus retributive justice, will appeal not only to those who oppose the death penalty, but also to those who strive to understand how people can forgive the seemingly unforgivable.
"These essays...show us the human and inhuman realities of capital punishment through the eyes of the condemned and those who work with them. By focusing on those awaiting death, they present the awful truth behind the statistics in concrete, personal terms."
--William J. Bowers, author of Legal Homicide
Between 1930 and 1967, there were 3,859 executions carried out under state and civil authority in the United States. Since the ten-year moratorium on capital punishment ended in 1977, more than one hundred prisoners have been executed. There are more than two thousand men and women now living on death row awaiting their executions. Facing the Death Penalty offers an in-depth examination of what life under a sentence of death is like for condemned inmates and their families, how and why various professionals assist them in their struggle for life, and what these personal experiences with capital punishment tell us about the wisdom of this penal policy.
The contributors include historians, attorneys, sociologists, anthropologists, criminologists, a minister, a philosopher, and three prisoners. One of the prisoner-contributors is Willie Jasper Darden, Jr., whose case and recent execution after fourteen years on death row drew international attention. The inter-disciplinary perspectives offered in this book will not solve the death penalty debate, but they offer important and unique insights on the full effects of American capital punishment provisions. While the book does not set out to generate sympathy for those convicted of horrible crimes, taken together, the essays build a case for abolition of the death penalty.
"This work stands with the best of what's been written. It represents the best of those who have seen the worst."
--Colman McCarthy, The Washington Post Book World
Michigan is the only state in the country that has a death penalty prohibition in its constitution—Eugene G. Wanger’s compelling arguments against capital punishment is a large reason it is there. The forty pieces in this volume are writings created or used by the author, who penned the prohibition clause, during his fifty years as a death penalty abolitionist. His extraordinary background in forensics, law, and political activity as constitutional convention delegate and co-chairman of the Michigan Committee Against Capital Punishment has produced a remarkable collection. It is not only a fifty-year history of the anti–death penalty argument in America, it also is a detailed and challenging example of how the argument against capital punishment may be successfully made.
"Sharp’s book reemphasizes the tremendous costs of maintaining the death penalty—costs to real people and real families that ripple throughout generations to come."—Saundra D. Westervelt, author of Shifting the Blame: How Victimization Became a Criminal Defense
"Everyone concerned with the effects of capital punishment must have this book."—Margaret Vandiver, professor, department of criminology and criminal justice, University of Memphis
Murderers, particularly those sentenced to death, are considered by most to be unusually heinous, often sub-human, and entirely different from the rest of us. In Hidden Victims, sociologist Susan F. Sharp challenges this culturally ingrained perspective by reminding us that those individuals facing a death sentence, in addition to being murderers, are brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, daughters or sons, relatives or friends. Through a series of vivid and in-depth interviews with families of the accused, she demonstrates how the exceptionally severe way in which we view those on death row trickles down to those with whom they are closely connected. Sharp shows how family members and friends—in effect, the indirect victims of the initial crime—experience a profoundly complicated and socially isolating grief process.
Departing from a humanist perspective from which most accounts of victims are told, Sharp makes her case from a sociological standpoint that draws out the parallel experiences and coping mechanisms of these individuals. Chapters focus on responses to sentencing, the particular structure of grieving faced by this population, execution, aftermath, wrongful conviction, family formation after conviction, and the complex situation of individuals related to both the killer and the victim.
Powerful, poignant, and intelligently written, Hidden Victims challenges all of us—regardless of which side of the death penalty you are on—to understand the economic, social, and psychological repercussions that shape the lives of the often forgotten families of death row inmates.
In The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado, noted death penalty scholar Michael Radelet chronicles the details of each capital punishment trial and execution that has taken place in Colorado since 1859. The book describes the debates and struggles that Coloradans have had over the use of the death penalty, placing the cases of the 103 men whose sentences were carried out and 100 more who were never executed into the context of a gradual worldwide trend away from this form of punishment.
For more than 150 years, Coloradans have been deeply divided about the death penalty, with regular questions about whether it should be expanded, restricted, or eliminated. It has twice been abolished, but both times state lawmakers reinstated the contentious punitive measure. Prison administrators have contributed to this debate, with some refusing to participate in executions and some lending their voices to abolition efforts. Colorado has also had a rich history of experimenting with execution methods, first hanging prisoners in public and then, starting in 1890, using the "twitch-up gallows" for four decades. In 1933, Colorado began using a gas chamber and eventually moved to lethal injection in the 1990s.
Based on meticulous archival research in official state archives, library records, and multimedia sources, The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado, will inform the conversation on both sides of the issue anywhere the future of the death penalty is under debate.