The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment


Why does the United States continue to employ the death penalty when fifty other developed democracies have abolished it? Why does capital punishment become more problematic each year? How can the death penalty conflict be resolved? In The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, Frank Zimring reveals that the seemingly insoluble turmoil surrounding the death penalty reflects a deep and long-standing division in American values, a division that he predicts will soon bring about the end of capital punishment in our country. On the one hand, execution would seem to violate our nation's highest legal principles of fairness and due process. It sets us increasingly apart from our allies and indeed is regarded by European nations as a barbaric and particularly egregious form of American exceptionalism. On the other hand, the death penalty represents a deeply held American belief in violent social justice that sees the hangman as an agent of local control and safeguard of community values. Zimring uncovers the most troubling symptom of this attraction to vigilante justice in the lynch mob. He shows that the great majority of executions in recent decades have occurred in precisely those Southern states where lynchings were most common a hundred years ago. It is this legacy, Zimring suggests, that constitutes both the distinctive appeal of the death penalty in the United States and one of the most compelling reasons for abolishing it. Impeccably researched and engagingly written, Contradictions in American Capital Punishment casts a clear new light on America's long and troubled embrace of the death penalty.


CAPITAL PUNISHMENT in the United States is an issue of great moral, political, legal, and practical importance. But the practice of executions in the United States in the early years of the twenty-first century is one other thing: It is a puzzle.

Why does the United States execute when every other developed Western nation has ceased to use the taking of life as a legal punishment? What elements of American history and culture create an affinity for state executions? What is the most likely future of the death penalty in the United States?

This book is my effort to resolve the puzzle of American capital punishment, to explain the contradictions in American culture that generate conflict over the death penalty and the changes that will be necessary to bring American capital punishment to a peaceful end.

My explanation revolves around three distinctive interpretations of capital punishment as an American phenomenon. I show that some of the same pressures that have led to the condemnation of the death penalty in Europe have produced instead its reinvention in the United States. The proponents of capital punishment have engineered a symbolic transformation over the last two decades. We now tell ourselves that an executing government is acting in the interest of victims and communities rather than in a display of governmental power and dominance. The net effect of this recent change is that the United States and the rest of the Western world are further apart on the death penalty than ever before, and in . . .

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