Executed on a Technicality is a new book by Prof. David Dow, University Distinguished Professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
A few comments/reviews:
FROM THE PUBLISHER
"When David Dow was first asked to represent death row inmates, he supported the death penalty. Capital punishment was an abstraction to him, and he imagined that death row was filled with characters like Charles Manson and Hannibal Lecter. Dow gradually realized that his perception of the death penalty and of those on death row was completely incorrect." "The cases in this eye-opening book are those of the men on death row who changed Dow's mind about capital punishment forever. You'll meet Johnny Joe Martinez, for instance, who was executed despite the fact that Dow convinced the court that he had strong grounds for an appeal. Martinez had exhausted his right of appeal when his lawyer wrote a mere seventeen-line-long appeal; he was executed on a technicality. Roger Coleman was denied an appeal because, although his lawyers mailed the appeal notice on time, it was received literally one day too late; he was executed because his lawyers failed to use registered mail." These concrete accounts of the people Dow has known and represented prove that the death penalty is consistently unjust, and it's precisely this fundamental - and lethal- injustice, Dow convincingly argues, that should compel us to abandon the system altogether.
FROM THE CRITICS
The death penalty is wrong because it can't be meted out fairly, argues Dow (Law/Univ. of Houston). The standard argument against executions is that they are cruel, inhumane and somehow uncivilized: a rhetorical strategy that often runs aground on the hard retort that killers can't be punished enough and to feel sympathy for them is naive at best. Some death penalty abolitionists, like Sister Helen Prejean, will explain why certain death row inmates are actually innocent, but even though the author is director of the Texas Innocence Network, he thinks that's also the wrong angle to take. Dow systematically walks readers through the process by which states decide to execute criminals, a process that ultimately owes far more to a convict's race, class and caliber of attorney than to the crime's level of brutality, which is supposed to be the factor that determines whether a death penalty or life sentence is imposed. "The tiny handful that we execute is almost never the worst of the worst," writes Dow. "Instead, people are executed because eyewitnesses make mistakes, police lie, defense lawyers sleep, and judges do not care." He returns repeatedly to the subject of defense lawyers who slept through the trials of clients who later went to death row; in one unbelievable instance in Texas, six people who had been represented by one dozing lawyer were executed. It isn't just a bad defense that makes the system so unfair to the accused, the author asserts; it's also the simple fact that minorities are executed far more often than their white counterparts (regardless of the severity of the crime) and that higher courts are increasingly unwilling to hear appeals from those on death row. Though the central power of Dow's argument occasionally gets lost in a book that
frequently reads like a dry legal brief, he succeeds in illuminating the horrific arbitrariness of a system that has abandoned blind justice for "the rule of the mob." An honorably dispassionate and logical broadside against a shameful practice.
From Publishers Weekly
This volume joins a growing list of recent books arguing against the death penalty, particularly by people who once supported it. Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center and founder of the Texas Innocence Network, used to be "somewhere between agnostic and mildly in favor of capital punishment." Then, in 1988, he took on the case of Carl Johnson-and began to change his mind. Johnson's lawyer literally slept through crucial parts of the trial, and the judge, in Dow's opinion, gave an incorrect answer to a question from the jury that might have compelled them to sentence Johnson to death. The arguments Dow presents are pragmatic, based not on abstract theories but on facts: only a handful of murderers are executed, he says, and they are "almost never the worst of the worst"-not the Hannibal Lecters, not the Charles Mansons. Rather, they are poor members of minority groups who have been represented by incompetent lawyers, manipulated into forced confessions, or have, in some cases, even been innocent. All of these points will be familiar to opponents of capital punishment, but readers who are on the fence may learn much from Dow's impassioned but well-reasoned case.From Booklist
Formerly a supporter of the death penalty, attorney Dow examines the inherent unfairness of the process of imposing the death penalty. Currently, sentencing focuses too much on guilt rather than fairness, Dow asserts. He focuses on a number of cases involving horrible crimes, in which the determination of the death penalty depended less on the crime and guilt than on a culmination of other factors, including official corruption and inept defense attorneys and judges. In effect, contrary to public notions that the penalty fit a particular crime, the death penalty is as random as a lightning strike. Dow provides historical perspective on the death penalty--outlawed in 1972 because of its arbitrary use, and its reinstatement with an extensive appeal process meant to address concerns about constitutionality. But a 1996 law effectively undercut the appeal process, sacrificing fairness as the application of the death penalty appeared less a response to horrendous crimes and more a measure of the accused's race, class, and inability to secure a fair trial.
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