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Book Review of: Angel Of Death Row
My life as a death penalty defense lawyer
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Angel Of Death Row, by
Andrea D. Lyon (Hardcover, 2010)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
This is an excellent book written in a personal style. It was engaging and informative.
While it's obvious from the title what the author's stance is on the death penalty, I think even if you are for the death penalty you won't find this book propagandistic. What comes through to me is that the author is telling us about her experiences in defending people who are on death row.
If it were propagandistic, it would probably paint prosecutors and/or judges in a negative light. Actually, some of them are painted that way and we can understand why when we see what they did. But others are portrayed as competent, caring people who are on the other side. The job they are doing is essential, and it benefits society. From the author's perspective, it seems that competent prosecutors are the majority and they share her conviction that the accused deserve a rigorous defense. The problem is that not all prosecutors share that conviction and not all defense attorneys do either.
The author does not, as some have indicated, seem to think that we should let violent criminals get away with their crimes. In fact, her view is the opposite. When an innocent person is convicted of a crime, the one who did it gets away. Execution exacerbates this problem.
Traditionally, opinions on the death penalty have been based on opinion. Increasingly, people are changing their opinions based on the facts. I did that, myself (see Background, after the review).
I was a bit alarmed to see the foreword was by Alan Dershowitz. After reading several of his articles some years ago, I concluded he should not be writing articles. So, I skipped the foreword because I have no desire to read anything he says. I realize he's a big name and the intent was to have a high status endorsement of the book. Fortunately, the book jumps out of the chute and does just fine without an endorsement. I think for many potential readers, his name there is going to set them immediately against the book. Please do not make this mistake.
While I am sure the author is factual (the pieces fit together well, no holes or contradictions), she does use some elements of fiction. This is a plus, not a drawback. For example, she begins the Introduction just the way a good novel should begin. Instead of boring you, it starts off with what writers call a "hook." I was immediately drawn in.
The rest of the book contains twelve chapters, acknowledgements, epilogue, reader's guide, and a short "about the author" spread across 267pages. A few of these pages are blank (a chapter or section always starts on an odd-numbered page, so sometimes there's a blank at the end of the preceding chapter or section). Call it 250 pages. Engrossing ones, at that.
I had initially thought each of the twelve chapters would focus on one case, so we'd be looking at twelve death row inmates. That isn't how the book is constructed. I didn't count the number of cases while reading, and don't wish to go back and try to do that now. What I can tell you is that the story of each of these people was enormously interesting and different from the rest. The author must have had some rationale for picking these particular cases, but she doesn't say what it is.
In some of these cases, it seems people were convicted for the crime of being black. This issue is reflected in death row demographics. With 13% of the nation's population being black and about 50% of death row inmates being black, something seems askew. But it gets worse in some states. In Kentucky in 1996, 100% of its death row inmates were black.
But this book isn't a tome on how blacks are being sent disproportionately to death row. Read the horrendous case of Deidre, and you'll understand that very clearly. The scales of injustice, it seems, are sometimes color blind.
The author seemed to go to great lengths to present a factual picture of things. Given her background, I found her presentation surprisingly fair. I didn't feel manipulated, proselytized, or preached to. As a reader, I felt the author was taking me by the hand and saying, "Let me show you what I saw."
Ms. Lyon's personal biases on the issues covered in this book must be in the work no matter how hard she tried to eliminate them. For this reason, I recommend Scott Turow's early writings on the death penalty. Unlike Ms. Lyon, he didn't particularly have a horse in this race. Now, I am not saying Ms. Lyon came across as biased. I am only it isn't reasonable to presume she could be 100% dispassionate on death penalty related issues and good to read other works on those issues.
This book is the product of meticulous copy-editing, which is something I personally consider a huge plus. I do not like having to translate from Pidgin English. It's nice to see a work with attention paid to the mechanics of grammar and composition.
Should you buy a copy of this book? No. Buy several. Give one of those to your local library, and give the others to thinking people who would appreciate something substantial to think about.
In early adulthood, I was for the death penalty. After seeing how the IRS can execute people without a trial or any sort of due process, I started to have my doubts about a death penalty for criminal offenses. But I still justified my belief in it for criminal cases, noticing the vast difference in rights accorded violent criminals versus the utter lack of rights for IRS victims. For example, you have the right of discovery in criminal court. I also thought the burden of proof was on the prosecution (in IRS cases, it's not and that includes those "adjudicated" outside the courts by some hourly worker with an attitude and far too much power).
Stubbornly, I held on to the idea that certain criminals should be put to death. Perhaps it's because in the winter of my senior year in high school, one such criminal raped a classmate of mine and then left her headless, naked body in a snow bank. Her body turned up the spring thaw. Coincidentally, this occurred in the author's home state.
I also agree with freedom advocate Ted Nugent that "I don't like repeat offenders; I like dead offenders." Mr. Nugent made this remark in reference to the right to self-defense against violent criminals (Mr. Nugent is not just a rock and roll musician. He is a US Federal Marshall and is heavily involved in charitable works, in addition to serving society in other ways). But there is a huge difference between permanently stopping a violent criminal who is attacking you, and letting the state errantly railroad innocent people to the electric chair or lethal injection. I didn't understand this difference until I began to understand how utterly broken our (in)justice system is.
The light came on when I read a book written by Scott Turow, an Illinois attorney who had set out to document why the death penalty should be reinstated in Illinois. This was part of the work authorized by the Ryan Commission on the Death Penalty. Before he completed his digging, Turow changed his mind completely. The sheer number of innocent people convicted was staggering.
In reviewing the cases, Turow came across egregious examples of what I like to call "marsupial magistration," another name for kangaroo courts. Then there were the statistics. Ms. Lyon also includes many of them in this book, and Turow reveals many others. Ms. Lyon doesn't discuss the enormous financial cost of the death penalty (far more than life in prison), but Turow does.
Just a week before I read this book, I watched the drama-mentary, "Exonerated." It was an in-depth exploration of a few individual death row cases and what went wrong. That work, Ms. Lyon's work, and Turow's work all bring to front of mind "But for the grace of God, there go I." It's not just our criminal courts that put innocent people through torture and to death. A movie called "Rendition" brings up another way our nation treats innocent people with disdain and shreds the Bill of Rights, as do the shocking accounts of the Hoyt Fiasco and the AMCOR Atrocity.
You could be on death row yourself, despite not having done anything wrong. Here's a layman's warning that may keep you from going there. In all of the cases I have seen, the victims did one thing wrong. They spoke to the police without an attorney present. Never do this. There is a very good reason the Miranda warning includes that line about anything you say being used against you. It doesn't matter if you are under arrest or not, say nothing. While I am very glad we have police, they are never the "friend" of anyone questioned during a criminal investigation. Don't confuse them with one, no matter how reasonable they seem.
About these reviews
You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?
I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?
And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.
This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.
My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.
A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.
About your reviewer
About reading style
No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.
Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.