America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present

America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present

America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present

America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present


Over the past three decades, the United States has embraced the death penalty with tenacious enthusiasm. While most of those countries whose legal systems and cultures are normally compared to the United States have abolished capital punishment, the United States continues to employ this ultimate tool of punishment. The death penalty has achieved an unparalleled prominence in our public life and left an indelible imprint on our politics and culture. It has also provoked intense scholarly debate, much of it devoted to explaining the roots of American exceptionalism.

America's Death Penalty takes a different approach to the issue by examining the historical and theoretical assumptions that have underpinned the discussion of capital punishment in the United States today. At various times the death penalty has been portrayed as an anachronism, an inheritance, or an innovation, with little reflection on the consequences that flow from the choice of words. This volume represents an effort to restore the sense of capital punishment as a question caught up in history. Edited by leading scholars of crime and justice, these original essays pursue different strategies for unsettling the usual terms of the debate. In particular, the authors use comparative and historical investigations of both Europe and America in order to cast fresh light on familiar questions about the meaning of capital punishment. This volume is essential reading for understanding the death penalty in America.

Contributors: David Garland, Douglas Hay, Randall McGowen, Michael Meranze, Rebecca McLennan, and Jonathan Simon.


In recent years the death penalty has lost none of its power to arouse powerful emotions or to produce heated debates. Indeed, the question of capital punishment has secured greater prominence, as it has become one of the defining issues in the campaign to promote recognition of international human rights. The result has been the transformation of a debate largely taking place within national political contexts and arising mainly within Western culture into a cause that leaders of all nations feel compelled to address. Debates at the United Nations, discussions before various human rights conventions, as well as the attention of the world press have all brought a level of scrutiny of national practices that is difficult to avoid. Proponents of the abolition of the penalty assert that it violates universal human rights which transcend local traditions or circumstances. Their opponents tend to reject this claim, asserting, instead, the priority of separate and distinct national or religious identities.

Often the ethical and moral argument over capital punishment is posed as a timeless question whose fundamental shape has not, and cannot, change. Yet, paradoxically, much recent scholarly discussion has centered on a particular country and its peculiar history, namely, America’s retention of the death penalty. To many observers, the survival of capital punishment in this country appears both a puzzle and a provocation. The question seems simple, even if the answer has proved elusive: Why should a nation that casts itself as a leader in the battle for human rights resist so tenaciously the elimination of a practice so self-evidently a holdover from darker times? A great deal seems to be at stake in the answer to this question. The presence of capital punishment in America feels more threatening, at least to American and European scholars and activists, than its occurrence elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it often seems as if answering the riddle of the death penalty depends . . .

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