Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty by Scott Turow - review by Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield

Hang ‘Em High

Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty


Picador 164pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

SCOTT TURROW WAS a member of the Illinois commission on the death penalty, set up by Governor George Ryan, which, although it did- not reach a unanimous decision, recommended the punishment's abolition in April 2002. This book is a somewhat agonising account of the moral and practical dilemmas that have faced him in capital cases spanning his thirty-year legal career. At the end of it, in the very last sentence, he reveals that he voted 'no' when the members of the commission were asked whether Illinois should retain capital punishment; but it was clearly not a simple decision. On just the previous page he writes, 'I admit I am still attracted to a death penalty that would be available for the crimes of unimaginable dimensions like [John Wayne] Gacy's [the rape and murder of over thirty young men], or that would fully eliminate the moral risks that incorrigible monsters like [Henry] Brisbon [a habitual murderer] might ever satisfy their vampire appetites.' The real reason why Turow doesn't support the death penalty is not because he believes it is wrong for one human being to take the life of another, but because he can't find a practical way to ensure that only the Gacys of this world get executed and no innocent gets carted off to the chopping block.

Not a particularly profound conclusion you may think, but then you have to remind yourself that legal progress takes careful steps, and the decision of Governor George Ryan in Illinois to abolish the death penalty was actually monumental, even if, as Turow suggests, it was made partly because Ryan was

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