Anatomy of an Execution -- a Must Read Memoir for all Death Penalty Opponents

You have to read this book. 

That's all I really need to write here, but it's impossible to stop typing about how David Dow's memoir is so important for anyone connected with capital punishment to read -- and why this is so.

First, he provides a clear and unique perspective.  David Dow is not only a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, he's also the head of litigation at the Texas Defender Service.   Professor Dow has been in the trenches of death penalty defense for years, and knows of what he speaks. 

Second, he's writing a memoir this time.  Professor Dow has been published before, but his previous works were more analytical in nature.  Works like Machinery of Death: The Reality of America's Death Penalty Regime (Taylor & Francis 2002), and Executed on a Technicality (Beacon 2005).  This book gives an inside view of what it's like to represent clients who are facing death by execution.  Intersecting in these pages are Dow's dealings with his young son and how appellate demands (particularly in death penalty cases) collide with family time and parenting needs.  It's something that all capital litigators can truly understand, and it's rare that someone reveals the razor's edge we sometimes walk.

Third, Professor Dow gives us reality that is perhaps easier revealed via this personal perspective.  In Anatomy of an Execution, David Dow doesn't pull any punches.  He's showing you the underbelly of capital punishment in this country today, from the standpoint of an expert defense counsel.  From the book, you find out things such as:

  1. There was a time that he was in favor of capital punishment.  He understands the arguments of death penalty proponents. 
  2. Sometimes, he's hasn't liked his client -- and it's brave of him to admit this.  Of course, that hasn't stopped his calling to stand against a client's execution. 
  3. Money -- and budgeting -- are just as much a concern of the defense as it is for the prosecution.  David Dow's story, covering a select number of representations as they dovetailed with his personal life, actually brings home the financial realities of capital punishment defense in this country:  Administrative matters and an analysis of cost vs benefit do happen in death penalty cases, and hat's off to Professor Dow for shedding some light on the elephant in the room. 

 For more, check out a post written by David Dow, discussing how he came to write this book, over at the Huffington Post. 





Death Penalty on Film: Capote (2005)

This past week, the film Capote (2005) was shown on television -- and while the name suggests that the movie covers the life of famed author Truman Capote, that's not the case.  What the movie focuses upon is Capote's involvement with two men who were executed by the  State of Kansas for the killings of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas back in the late 1950s.

For those - like me - who are interested in how the death penalty is presented to America not only in the media and in our legislation but in our popular culture, I found the movie to be important. 

Not only does it provide an excellent perspective on how the trial and appellate process can cover years and years as the case winds its way through both the state and federal systems, but it reveals so much about the prisoners themselves.  How they spend years and years in small cells, a punishment in and of itself -- and in Perry Smith's case, the movies also gives food for thought about how a small boy could grow up to end his life by a hangman's noose.

And the execution of Perry Smith is shown in Capote.  In the 1960s, Kansas still executed prisoners by hanging.  You see the entirety of the process, and for those who wonder about those last moments - the film strives for accuracy.  There is the harness, there is the hood placed over the prisoner's head (for the benefit of the witnesses many argue, as opposed to the condemned), there is the sound of the latch being thrown and the body falling down, swaying in the open air. 

It's a memorable scene in a memorable film. 

And, as for hanging as a form of capital punishment, we don't see that today.  Today, only two states still allow for hanging and then, only as an option the lethal injection.  (That's Delaware and Washington.) 

Why not?  Hanging someone to kill them is tricky business.  If the state doesn't do its math right, calculating the weight of the individual and comparing it against the length of the drop and the strength of the rope, then the condemned does not die by a swift break of the neck but instead slowly suffocates -- which is said to be a very messy and painful process. 

In Capote (2005), the execution goes smoothly and Truman Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) watches without a word and then walks away.  Afterwards, he completes In Cold Blood -- a telling of the Clutter killings, the investigation and arrest of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, following the judicial process through their deaths.   

And, of course, In Cold Blood is a must read for those dealing with the issue of capital punishment in this country -- and watching Capote, as this important book is being created, makes you want to pull that important book off the shelf and re-read it.  Which I, for one, am going to do.

Great Book to Read Especially If It's For Free, Online - The Death Penalty: A WorldWide Perspective

Roger Hood's The Death Penalty: a WorldWide Perspective is a great book.  This is true, even if it may be in need of a revised edition, given that this version was published in 2003. 

And, if you sign up for a free trial at, you can read his book for free ... this is a great thing.  Here's's description of Hood's work:

This is the completely revised and updated third edition of Roger Hood's classic study on the death penalty. In it he surveys and analyses the status of the death penalty as a punishment worldwide, taking into account the changes that have taken place during the six years since the last edition was published. This new edition is especially valuable at a time when more and more countries are joining the movement to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

Cameron Todd Willingham and John Grisham's The Innocent Man

John Grisham chose a story about the death penalty for his first non-fiction novel, and it's well worth the read.  The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, has been out for awhile -- so long in fact, that you can buy a used copy on Amazon for a buck ninety-nine ($1.99).   It's particularly compelling in light of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham -- an innocent man executed by the State of Texas with scientific evidence recently proving his innocence.

What's Grisham's book about?

It's a true story, which began over 25 years ago when a young cocktail waitress was raped and murdered, and the crime remained unsolved for 5 years.  All this time, the authorities believed that two specific men were responsible, and after these five years had passed, they ended up arresting the two guys, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, for murder. 

They had no physical evidence.  The case went to a jury based solely on junk science and the testimony of a convict or two.  Ron Williamson was sent to death row; his pal got life in prison.

Eerie to read, as you ponder the Willingham case....

Claire Phillips' Portraits of Death Row - Foreign Citizens Sentenced to Die

Claire Phillips is a British artist who has traveled throughout the United States on a tour of Death Row facilities. Although she's not allowed to bring any of her tools of the trade with her - no sketchbooks, no brushes, no palette knives or pens - she spends sufficient time with her chosen subjects to replicate their images from memory. And Claire Phillips does a very good job.

In a recent gallery viewing, her portraits included:

Krishna Maharaj, a British subject who was convicted of murder here in Florida and originally sentenced to death. Luckily, efforts were successful to move Mr. Maharaj off Death Row, and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Unfortunately, additional work was not successful in lessening that punishment and Mr. Maharaj can expect to spend the rest of his days in a Florida prison.

Linda Carty is an Englishwoman (she hails from the British Virgin Islands) who faces execution in Texas. With the current state of review (she has exhausted her state remedies and is pursuing a federal appeal), Ms. Carty may not be able to escape capital punishment.

According to the official summary from the Texas site, "[o]n 05/16/2001 Carty and three co-defendants invaded the home of a 25 year old female. The victim and her three day old baby were kidnapped and two other victims were beaten, duct taped, and left in the residence. The 25 year old female was hog-tied with duct tape, a bag was taped over her head, and she was placed in the trunk of a car. This victim died from suffocation."

Apparently, Linda Carty and her codefendants were accused of killing a mother in order to keep her newborn baby. The co-defendants took plea deals, leaving Linda Carty to face trial alone for the crimes. Without any forensic evidence tying her to the crime, and no eyewitness testimony, Carty was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to death.

Earlier this year, Houston law firm Baker & Botts filed a federal appeal asking for a new trial for Linda Carty based, in part, upon ineffective assistance of counsel. The British Government filed its own amicus in her case with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans last month. That appeal is pending.

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