I have a confession to make. It’s kind of embarrassing because–while I am perpetually befuddled as to how it came to be–I a minor part of the leadership of the movement to abolish the death penalty in California, and people assume, by dint of that fact, that I am an expert on the subject. What I’m really an expert on, though, is abhorrence of the subject. The fact that I am surrounded by people who aren’t embarrassed to use the word ‘justice’ in reference to the perpetuation of a barbaric anachronism that’s more akin to institutionalized road rage than it is to anything rational–let alone right or for Pete’s sake just–gets me riled enough to spit. That’s why I work so hard to make it go away.
And so we come to the confession: even though I have been talking in a very public way about the subject since shortly before Timothy McVeigh finally laid himself down on the gurney, I’ve never actually read a whole book about the death penalty before. Oh I’ve spent countless hours surfing the internet and doing research about capital punishment. I’ve thought talked written and sometimes even, somehow, managed to entertain people with the collections of words I’ve assembled on the subject. I’ve looked through a lot of books about the death penalty and used many of them to research said collections of words. But every time I contemplate sitting down to read a death penalty book in its entirety, I get the urge throw the thing against the wall of the nearest courthouse, and I usually end up going for a long walk or playing video solitaire, instead.
I am a dedicated book junkie. When I’m not reading for research, I read books for pleasure. I associate a multitude of feelings with thoughts of the death penalty, but pleasure isn’t one of them. It was, however, a distinct pleasure to read Bill Kurtis’ new book The Death Penalty On Trial: Crisis in American Justice. Even if you’re not passionate about the subject, this book is a good read. What makes it so compelling is a rare combination of thorough research, carefully constructed analysis, and elegant, powerful storytelling.
“Friday, January 10, 2003 was a turning point for American justice. It was a cold morning in Chicago. Lake Michigan heaved a thick, frosty breath over the city.” From the first page to the last, I was absorbed. Kurtis opens the book describing a speech given at DePaul University Law School by Illinois Governor George Ryan, days before he left office.
Ryan Ã¢Â?Â¦was an approachable, jolly sort of man. His short-cropped gray-white hair
topped a round face giving him the warm look of a beloved grandfather. But today
his face was rigid and serious. He frowned down at his notes. Then George Ryan
took a deep breath and made history.
His first words from the podium. . . made it clear that he had chosen to leave a remarkable legacy. He would pardon four inmates sitting on death row, he said, because, “It was the right thing to do.” Doing the right thing is clearly important to Bill Kurtis, too. It is significant that Kurtis opens with Ryan’s conversion story, because this book is also the story of Kurtis’ own conversion from a staunch death penalty supporter to an abolitionist. “As a lawyer, I had a deep faith in our system of justice…in most law schools, students are taught law as it should be practiced. Reality comes from the partner who tells you how it really is practiced.”
Kurtis never had the opportunity to learn from that partner. The part-time television news job that saw him through law school was transformed by chance occurrence into a full-time broadcasting career. “Although I had accepted a job with a trial firm in Wichita, I was still reporting for a local station when a tornado literally ripped a new highway through the state capital. I was on the air at the time and saw firsthand what television can do. In this case, it saved lives with its instant warning and my career decision was made.”
Kurtis’ commitment to doing the right thing led him to closely examine America’s use of capital punishment. “When the thirteenth exoneration was announced from Illinois death row, I was shaken in the same way as George Ryan. The Greek term is peripeteia, that moment when you realize that everything you have believed is wrong. ” As a reporter, Kurtis covered the trials of some of the most horrifying crimes in recent American history. Speaking of heinous murderers like Charles Manson and Richard Speck, Kurtis says: “There is only one thing that would overturn my desire to rid the world of such monsters and that is fear of convicting and executing an innocent person.”
Kurtis chose two cases of men who were wrongfully sentenced to death even though “everything should have worked perfectly,” in other words “typical American trials.” And examines them in detail in this book, looking for what went wrong. He concludes that, “The administration of justice is complicated, too complicated to make death its product.”
Converts to a cause can become its most zealous promoters. St. Paul the Apostle comes immediately to mind. Struck down on the road to Damascus, Paul was transformed from someone who killed Christians, into a force that spread the new faith throughout the world. Bill Kurtis’ faith in the ideal of American justice was shattered by his confrontation with the story of Illinois’ “lucky 13.” Kurtis is clearly a force to be reckoned with. About Death Penalty on Trial, Kurtis says, “I hope my book will provide … critical information to those who still believe the criminal justice system punishes the guilty and protects the innocent without fail. It does not.” The collective voice of death penalty abolitionists has become considerably more powerful now that Bill Kurtis’ very gifted one has joined it.
copyright 2004 by Carolyn F. Boyle