Friday, April 20, 2007

Dorland reviews Ogletree & Sarat, From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State

FROM LYNCH MOBS TO THE KILLING STATE: Race and the Death Penalty in America by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. and Austin Sarat (eds) (New York University Press) is reviewed by Mitzi Dorland, Institute for Law and Society, New York University on the Law and Politics Book Review. Dorland begins:
FROM LYNCH MOBS TO THE KILLING STATE, edited by Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. and Austin Sarat, assembles an impressive collection of essays from a diverse cast of authors for the task of explaining how and why the connection between race and the death penalty has been so strong throughout American history. By first grounding the connection in America’s history of racially motivated lynchings of suspected black criminals, and then illustrating the ways in which race has since continued to play a role in the administration of the “official” death penalty, this interdisciplinary collection provides much more depth to the connection between race and capital punishment than is often seen in other works. And, while the book focuses on the role of race, the essays also touch upon a wider range of important issues surrounding contemporary administration of the death penalty.
In their Introduction, Ogletree and Sarat contend that we are “now in a period of national reconsideration” of capital punishment. Surely, in recent years, and even since the book was published, prominent death row exonerations and, most recently, questions surrounding the humaneness of lethal injection, have coincided with significant reductions in the use of the death penalty. As the authors note, there have been dramatic declines in both the number of death sentences imposed each year and the number of offenders who are executed. Additionally, recent Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the scope of the death penalty, banning its application to the mentally retarded (ATKINS v. VIRGINIA 2002) and juveniles (ROPER v. SIMMONS 2005).
In contrast to the book’s focus, however, the issue of racial discrimination has seemingly been pushed from the forefront in recent years within the abolitionist movement itself, particularly by allegations of actual innocence, and, most recently, the surge of litigation alleging the cruelty of current lethal injection procedures. In his independent contribution (Chapter 8), Sarat chronicles and analyzes this shift toward highlighting actual innocence over racial disparities. Stuart Banner, however, suggests that race continues to play a prominent role in the “tactical decisions of death penalty opponents.” He notes, in part, that the website of the Death Penalty Information Center, “the most sophisticated and thorough of the abolitionist organizations,” had listed “Race” as the “very first of the ‘Issues’ surfers might wish to explore, ahead of competitors like ‘Innocence,’ ‘Costs,’ and ‘Deterrence’.” But “Race” has lost this distinction since Banner visited the site in 2002—the “Issues” have now [*313] been alphabetized, with “Arbitrariness” listed first. Of course, this change may have little or no significance, but the new listing of “Race” as just one among a whole litany of issues may better signify its current treatment within the abolitionist movement and the contemporary debate over capital punishment.
Still, statistical studies demonstrating racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty abound.

For the rest, click here.