The rise and fall of the death penalty

a human rights violation and an American tradition - Friday's long read from The Marshall Project and Maurice Chammah

We go to The Marshall Project for this weeks long read by Maurice Chammah, read the whole article here. We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time! And, it is also a book!


Most of the new death penalty laws produced by the states fell into two broad categories. Some states set aside a handful of specific crimes—murder of a police officer, for example—and made the death penalty automatic. Other states held a sort of second trial over punishment, in which the jury would hear lawyers present cases for and against death, and consider specific “aggravating” factors (the defendant killed for money, killed lots of people, etc.) and “mitigating” factors (the defendant had no history of violence, suffered from mental illness, etc.).


As the death penalty system ground into motion in the late 1970s, the LDF realized its work was only beginning. Every case would now be a smaller battle in a bigger war of attrition. Hundreds of men and women sentenced to death would need lawyers to attack those sentences one by one and stave off execution. Sometimes, their cases would end up back at the Supreme Court, which would be tasked with deciding not whether the death penalty as a whole was constitutional, but rather whether one element of a trial violated a defendant’s rights. The court would go on to rule in ways that both helped and hurt death row prisoners, but the overall effect would be to further entrench the punishment.

There would be a lot of relationships like the one between lawyer Davis and client Jurek. Often the racial dynamic would be flipped, with White lawyers and Black clients. The lawyers would develop arguments and study arcane legal precedents while their clients sat in death row cells for years and years, waiting for the day they might lose their cases and their lives. And what haunted Peggy Davis would haunt the many lawyers who would come after her. They would wonder, as she had wondered: What else could be done?

Read the full excerpt of Chammah’s new book, Let the Lord Sort Them -
: The Case That Made Texas the Death Penalty Capital.

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