Monday, June 14, 2010

The Executed and the Spared: 2 New Books

Perusing the New York Times book review I came across David Oshinsky's review of In the Place of Justice: A Story of Deliverance, by former death row inmate Walter Rideau. In 1961, Rideau was convicted of murder and given Louisiana's harshest sentence. His subsequent 44 years -- spent mostly in Angola -- were unusual: although he experienced the abuses that made the prison infamous, his journalism, advocacy, and negotiation skills brought him national fame. Life magazine dubbed him "The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America." Ultimately, Rideau was re-tried and convicted of a less serious offense; the lighter sentence triggered his immediate release.

In the Place of Justice
is his memoir. It is a "painfully candid" one, by Oshinsky's assessment. It is also the story of "deliverance" that Rideau promises in his subtitle. Oshinsky describes the author as "the rarest of American commodities — a man who exited a penitentiary in better shape than when he ­arrived."

You can read the full review here, and another review here. You can find an excerpt from the book here.

Meanwhile, the University of Chicago Press seems to be making a big push for Last Words of the Executed, by journalist Robert K. Elder. It is "an oral history of American capital punishment, as heard from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney." Here's part of the Press's description:
The product of seven years of extensive research . . . the book explores the cultural value of these final statements and asks what we can learn from them. We hear from both the famous—such as Nathan Hale, Joe Hill, Ted Bundy, and John Brown—and the forgotten, and their words give us unprecedented glimpses into their lives, their crimes, and the world they inhabited. Organized by era and method of execution, these final statements range from heartfelt to horrific. Some are calls for peace or cries against injustice; others are accepting, confessional, or consoling; still others are venomous, rage-fueled diatribes. Even the chills evoked by some of these last words are brought on in part by the shared humanity we can’t ignore, their reminder that we all come to the same end, regardless of how we arrive there.
The book is not, according to the synopsis, a "political" one.

The disclaimer at the end made me think about the decisions we make, consciously or not, when we build our projects around particular sources. The book may not be political, but what about the decision to use these direct statements? Excerpting them gives the speaker the chance to connect, to persuade, and to criticize, albeit at a time and in a place designated by the state (and in a context chosen by the author). I'm not saying that these sources are inherently pro- or anti-death penalty. My point is that they humanize as few other sources can, and -- as I'm sure Walter Rideau knows -- to humanize is to lend a type of power. I'd be interested in hearing from others who have written about controversial legal-historical topics, such as slavery, religion, and marriage. Do you have to disavow political intentions when you publicize your work? Do you think about your source choices as political ones?

Another question that seems worth pondering is why last words have been relatively well preserved. After coming across Elder's book, I realized I had seen "last words of the executed" articles before. Last September, when the death penalty was again in the news, a New York Times op-ed contributor pulled together a collection of last words that she found on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website. (The statements are still there, carefully organized and easily accessible.) Back in 2007, CNN.com used CourtTV records to do something similar.

You can find excerpts of the book, including a foreword by oral history legend Studs Terkel, here. For Elder's perspective, check out the interview he gave to WHYY's Marty Moss-Coane. You can listen here.

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