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The Death Penalty


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Table of Contents

* Abbreviations * Introduction *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

Promotional Information

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

About the Author

Stuart Banner is Norman Abrams Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles.


In this well-researched and clear account, Washington University law professor Banner charts how and why this country went from having one of the world's mildest punitive systems to one of its harshest. In colonial America, criminals were hanged before large crowds in elaborate rituals that included sermons and prayers. All serious crimes robbery, arson, counterfeiting were capital offenses. But gradually, opposition to execution took root and, by the 1780s, it was considered by many to be a feudal relic incompatible with human progress; resulting penal reforms significantly reduced the use of capital punishment. By the Civil War, a prolonged debate led three northern states to abolish it, while the rest limited its application to murderers (the South's opinions on the matter remained more or less unchanged). As 19th-century "elites" withdrew from the crowds at public executions, the mood turned against them altogether; when executions were moved inside prison walls, they no longer presented the public with their traditional (and gruesome) brand of deterrence. But, as Banner shows, in the last few decades, the number of executions has surged. Today, he contends, the death penalty is "an emotionally charged political issue administered within a legal framework so unworkable that it satisfie[s] no one." (12 halftones, not seen) (Mar.) Forecast: If booksellers shelve this with the recently reissued Legal Lynching by Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jesse Jackson Jr. and Ivan Solotaroff's The Last Face You'll Ever See, they'll see increased sales, for those impassioned on the subject will seek them out. And with its original and sound research, this volume should have staying power. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

[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 20020215 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 20020304 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 20020404 [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 20020401 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 20020408 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 20020630 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 20021101 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 20020707 "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 20020623 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 20021025 [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 20021201 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 20030921 As an historical account of capital punishment in America, the book is unmatched...The Death Penalty: An American History is a remarkable achievement. There should be little doubt that it rightfully belongs alongside the very best scholarship ever written on the controversial subject. -- Beau Breslin Criminal Justice Review

Opponents of capital punishment will get cold comfort from this history of the death penalty in America. Banner (law, Washington Univ.) is not a proponent of capital punishment and in fact takes great pains to describe the gruesome details of many executions. But here he concludes that the death penalty is ingrained in the American justice system, if not in the American way of life. Banner's account focuses on how the crimes punishable by death, and the way executions are administered, differ today from earlier times. Until the mid-18th century, a death sentence was given for a litany of crimes and carried out by hanging in the public square, with sermons and confessions. Today, a death sentence is given only for murder and treason and takes place out of sight, with few witnesses. Yet the reasons for the death penalty are the same: deterrence and retribution. Banner points out that while the death penalty has been a divisive issue for the past 250 years, it has always been with us except for the few years from the late 1960s to 1976. A chilling account; recommended for crime collections in all libraries. Frances Sandiford, Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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