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Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty    by Scott Turow order for
Ultimate Punishment
by Scott Turow
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In addition to being the well known author of legal thrillers such as Reversible Errors, Scott Turow is a lawyer, and an experienced prosecutor. He once undertook the pro bono appeal of Alejandro Hernandez, a man condemned to death for a murder that he did not commit. He is a self styled 'death penalty agnostic' who served on a Commission in 2000 to report to the Governor of Illinois on 'how to reform capital punishment' in that state. He gives us an eminently rational and succinct (at 120 pages) exposition on the pros and cons of capital punishment, not as it would work in an ideal world, but as it is carried out in the United States legal system today.

Turow begins with a brief history of capital punishment in America, and mentions an ongoing reassessment, based on the number of convictions shown to be false through DNA testing in the 1990s. He talks about the emotional factor and a 'propensity of jurors to turn the burden of proof against defendants accused of monstrous crimes.' Turow addresses survivors' desire for closure, and quotes victim advocate Dora Larson, who argues that 'justice means we never have to worry that our killer will ever kill again' - which, by the way, has always seemed to me to be the strongest argument for the death penalty, to protect potential future victims of the same criminal.

After looking into the available statistics, Turow concludes that they do not support an argument that the death penalty deters other killers. Also, it apparently does not result in a cost savings over life imprisonment, given the expense of the appeals process and the cost of death row incarceration. I liked the author's comment that the primary business of the correctional system is 'isolating the people who aren't fit to live with the rest of us', and he questions (with a Hannibal Lecter like example) whether there is any means besides execution to control prisoners 'clearly prone to murder again if given the opportunity.'

Turow tells us that 'Murder takes us to the Land's End of the law' and predicts that globalization pressures will eventually result in the abolition of the death penalty in the United States. He addresses the topic objectively and thoroughly. While admitting to a continuing attraction to the death penalty for 'crimes of unimaginable dimensions' and for 'incorrigible monsters', he worries about the justice system's ability to avoid 'condemning the innocent or undeserving.' If you have ever wondered about this issue, then read Ultimate Punishment for new insights; you may not have changed your mind afterwards but you will be better informed.

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