The Book

The Book


•  On a crisp March morning in 1969, the Justices of the United States Supreme Court voted that capital punishment was unconstitutional.  The vote, taken in the secrecy of in the Court’s conference room, was 8 to 1 — but within 24 hours, the Justices’ resolve began to unravel.  Why?  What were the consequences, for the rule of law and for the life at stake in that case?

 • When a botched execution in Louisiana came before the Supreme Court — the electric chair produced only sparks and smoke and the prisoner survived — the Court ruled that it was an accident, not cruel and unusual punishment, and that a second execution could proceed.  But one of the Justices who voted for that execution secretly tried to save the prisoner’s life because the decision weighed “heavily on my conscience.” What did that Justice do behind the scenes?  Was the outcome life or death?

 • In Southern California on a summer afternoon, two 16-year-olds were shot to death at point-blank range by a pair of older youths who then calmly devoured the Jack In The Box hamburgers they recovered from the victims.  The killers’ death sentences were appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds of proportionality — that “worse” murderers in California were serving life sentences.  Did the Court buy it?


Murder at the Sup Court-MEDIUMThose are some of the fascinating questions answered in Murder At The Supreme Court: The Cases That Made The Law, by two veteran journalists, Martin Clancy and Tim O’Brien. The book not only pulls back the curtain on Supreme Court secrecy, but provides revealing links between landmark capital punishment cases and the lethal crimes at their root.

For the first time, the rhetoric and measured legal arguments weighed by the Supreme Court are contrasted with the very human stories of those victimized by brutal crime and those responsible for it. The authors take their readers to crime scenes, holding cells, jury rooms, autopsy suites and execution chambers, as well as that secluded conference room on the second floor of the Supreme Court. It is true-life reporting on vicious crimes — and a disturbing account of the haphazard system that punishes them.

The cases reported in this book are truly “the cases that made the law.” They have defined the parameters that judges must follow — in some cases, the legal somersaults they must perform — for a death sentence to stand up to appeal.   The death penalty today can only be imposed in a relatively narrow class of homicides.

Death penalty jurisprudence in the United States has taken sharp twists and turns since 1972, when many Americans believed — incorrectly, it turns out — that the U. S. Supreme Court had all but invalidated capital punishment.  The authors focus on the major cases over the next two generations that produced those twists and turns; they report not only on the decisions — how they were reached and what they meant — but also on the often-gruesome crimes that led to these decisions.  They trace the links between murder and punishment.

Proponents of the death penalty often point to the viciousness of criminals  and their crimes in their justification for capital punishment, while opponents focus on failures in the system that they contend have made the death penalty a macabre crapshoot that discriminates against minorities, the poor, the mentally infirm…and even children.  Murder At The Supreme Court provides ammunition for both points of view; readers may be repelled by the homicides at the core of these cases, and outraged at the flaws in the justice system documented in the book.

The authors trace the evolution of the death penalty from the rowdiness of public hangings to the hushed words of executioners in secure and sterile execution chambers.  They report the details of critical moments at crime scenes, in the courtroom, in the deliberations of the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Death Row.  And they place these events in the context of evolving standards in public opinion and in the law that have affected the Supreme Court’s thinking about capital punishment.

Does the death penalty deter would-be murderers?  If not, why not?  And even if there is no evidence that society’s interest in deterrence is served, the crimes considered by the Court and recounted in this book involved acts of unspeakable violence.  They cried out for retribution.   Might that alone be sufficient justification for the death penalty?  Those are the among the obvious questions in the death penalty debate.  But there are many others that have confounded the Court.

    • Is lethal injection more “humane” than electrocution, the gas chamber, or a firing squad?  What do autopsies show about how condemned prisoners die?
    • Can the state forcibly medicate a mentally ill killer to make him “well enough” to be executed?
    • Does the race of the perpetrator, or of the victim, play a part in the imposition of the death penalty?  And what if it does?  Is that sufficient to bar a death sentence for a horrible crime?
    • Is heinous rape a capital crime?
    • Are some murderers too young to be executed? And if so, how young is too young?
    • How do Supreme Court justices deal with these questions of life and death around their conference table?
    • Condemned prisoners are almost always given the opportunity for a last statement.  But what are the last words they hear in Angola’s death chamber?

Clancy and O’Brien take up those questions in Murder At The Supreme Court,  from Prometheus Books.