Authors: Clancy, Martin & O’Brien, Tim
Publisher: Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, New York 14228-2119
by – Marty Ryan
The death penalty has always fascinated me. Why would society want to collectively kill one of its own? Isn’t it akin to cannibalism? There are so many reasons why I oppose the use of capital punishment, and there are so many people who know of my passion. My sister Kathleen and her husband, Bill, have given me this book because they thought I might like it. I love it! It has become my new resource for why this punishment, in the words of its authors, “is broken and cannot be fixed”.
Murder At The Supreme Court is a nonfiction book that goes in-depth to examine “Lethal Crimes and Landmark Cases” that have reached the United States Supreme Court. I have known the title of many cases examined in the book; Furman v. Georgia; Gregg v. Georgia; McCleskey v. Kemp; and many more. I basically know the significance of each case. However, authors Clancy and O’Brien have brought the cases to life. They have interviewed prosecutors, victims’ families, defense attorneys, wardens at prisons where executions have occurred, and several other players in a barbaric system that remains only in the United States and a small handful of other (mostly third-world) countries.
As Iowa experienced its closest brush with reinstatement of capital punishment in 1995, lobbyists in opposition to House File 2, the bill that was eventually defeated in the Iowa Senate by an overwhelming margin (11-39), emphasized a list of seven strong reasons why Iowa should not bring back the death penalty as a means of punishment. Clancy and O’Brien have included those points in their book. Deterrence, discriminatory application, ineffective representation, religious objections, actual innocence, retribution (or vengeance), and irrevocability are all addressed in the book.
I never had the chance to talk with the late Professor David Baldus [U of I law faculty] about his work on the McCleskey case. I would have liked to have heard his rendition of the description in the book where it mentions that “David Baldus watched helplessly from the gallery of the courtroom as he saw [Justice] White’s vote slip away.”
The McCleskey case was one of the first cases heard by Court in which newly-appointed Justice Antonin Scalia participated. The book focuses on Justice Scalia more than any other justice, and with good reason. Justice Scalia is the larger-than-life primary cheerleader of capital punishment. He has dissented or joined the dissent in every case that has narrowed the scope of those who may be vulnerable to a state-sanctioned killing. But moreover, he has also taken unnecessary jabs at other justices who have reasonably explained that there are “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” that must be taken into consideration.
What really struck me as strange is Justice Scalia’s justification for abandoning his Faith’s view on capital punishment. Being a supposedly “devout Catholic”, Scalia claims that “the question of capital punishment is not one on which the pope’s word is decisive for Catholics.” You learn something new every day. I have now learned that being an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court is one level higher than being pope of the Roman Catholic Church, if you happen to be a Catholic.