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An American History
By Stuart Banner
Harvard University Press
408 pgs. US$29.95
Death as a window into a nation's beliefs
By Steven Martinovich
For as long as there has been an America, there has been death penalty. As Washington University law professor Stuart Banner aptly illustrates in The Death Penalty: An American History, like the nation, the death penalty has changed in both form and how it has been carried out. Along with being the ultimate punishment that a society can levy for breaking its laws, the death penalty also serves as a window to attitudes on everything from religion to race.
Up until the early 1900s, executions were public displays that sometimes drew tens of thousands of men, women and children to witness the ultimate display of state power. Before the death penalty moved behind the walls of America's prisons, that public display was meant to cleanse the community and allow its citizens to join in the condemnation of the criminal's actions. Along with offering the opportunity for a criminal to repent for their actions, the public execution amplified in an undeniable way the message to potential lawbreakers what could be in store for them for breaking laws banning everything from petty theft to murder.
It was the introduction of the prison in the 1800s that marked a change in prevailing attitudes to the death penalty in the United States. With an alternate form of punishment, growing numbers of people began to believe that the death penalty was being applied to far too many crimes. Accordingly, lawmakers began to scale back the large number of offences that would result in death for a guilty conviction.
Banner also writes that the prison also offered the opportunity for lawmakers to begin moving executions behind closed doors as the public became more sensitive to the sight of death. With each new technological advance, the introduction of electricity in the late 1800s, the gas chamber in the early 20th century and the lethal injection a few decades later, fewer and fewer people were able to witness executions.
Although the death penalty has receded as a direct retributive example for Americans, The Death Penalty shows that the debate over its use has been almost constant since the mid-1700s. Mirroring the language of today, the debate focused on how much was a person responsible for the crime they committed. If propensity was biological in nature, executing someone even for murder was morally wrong, believed many. That viewpoint gained ascendancy in the 1800s and was a powerful force that led to several states to halt the use of the death penalty.
That move, however, crested in the 1920s thanks to a perception that there was surge in violent crimes and the general disfavor that the theory of determinism began to be held in. Outside of a few years in the early 1970s when the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty, the ultimate punishment has remained in use and often with the strong support of the public.
Banner's account spotlights a number of interesting trends in American history. At one point America's punitive system was considered - and proudly by its citizens - to be one of the least harsh in the world. Early in America's history, he argues, carrying out the death penalty served as a community ritual that condemned the crime, served as retribution and promised salvation for a repentant criminal. Today, the death penalty oftentimes serves as linguistic shorthand of where a person stands on crime and punishment.
While Banner occasionally gives away with his choice of words and examples that he is opposed to the death penalty, at least in its current incarnation, he deserves much praise for The Death Penalty: An 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 is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario and the editor of Enter Stage Right.
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