NOTE: This review originally appeared in The Champion, a magazine
published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Richard A. Stack’s Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Executions is a significant contribution to the academic and popular discourse surrounding the death penalty in the United States of America. Stack, a member of the faculty at the School of Communication at American University in Washington D.C. and the author of three previously published books – including Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance & the Victims of Capital Punishment – deftly exposes the crumbling moral, philosophical and legal foundations undergirding the death penalty system in America.
Grave Injustice is a highly readable study for anybody interested in a thoughtful, but critical examination of the death penalty in modern America. Stack reveals capital punishment as a broken, largely symbolic relic at odds with the very essence of a pluralistic democracy. Gladly for the reader Stack writes very well.
In a boon for both his audience and the cause he so clearly cares about, the book is not burdened with ideological rancor. His sensitivity to intellectual nuance and humanistic detail combine to make reading this book a fresh experience in an arena marked by substantial literary, scholarly and policy analysis.
Stack demonstrates admirably, and without sentimentality, why the necessary existential demands of democracy – fairness and enlightenment – will never conform to the underbelly of capital punishment. Even in subtle tension with his own wide-ranging critique, he cautions those aligned against the death penalty that the most fertile opposition to it may, in the end, emanate from pragmatic, not moral or philosophical, arguments. Stack writes, “The death sentence for the death sentence will not be based on its immorality, about which there is ample room for dispute, but on its poor track record containing crime and its overwhelming lack of cost-effectiveness.”
In facing the challenging scope of this civil rights topic, Stack divides his book in a sensible, accessible fashion. The first section, “Profiles in Injustice,” is dedicated to select cases in which injustice has very likely won the day. He highlights eighteen cases of men wrongfully sentenced to death and guides the reader toward a vivid introduction to the policies, procedures and methods by which such miscarriages of justice occurred.
Compromised science, faulty eyewitness identification, government wrongdoing, ineffective assistance of counsel and flagrant politicization are brought to light as recurring contributing causes to the embarrassment of wrongful convictions in America. The content of this section also allows Stack to sketch the enormous human cost of these errors.
Following Stack’s treatment of the cases in which most likely innocent men were executed, he turns in the second part of his book to “Profiles in Justice.” Here he surveys individuals who commit their energy to undoing the stain of America’s broken death penalty system. This three-part section is a hopeful rejoinder to the grim realities described in the first portion of Grave Injustice. Helen Prejean, the long-time and famous anti-death penalty advocate, a conservative Illinois lawmaker, the grief-stricken sister of Georgia-executed Troy Davis and others are showcased as essential leaders in a policy fight that has been pursued for decades with brave tenacity.
The reader, led by Stack’s deep knowledge and sensitive story-telling, is rewarded with a broad understanding of the many ways in which the criminal justice system as a whole, and the death penalty in particular, fails defendants, victims, communities, families and society. These failures lead to all sorts of civic harm.
Stack is successful in deconstructing the tired justifications for the death penalty as mere cover for a system crippled by the ravages of race, poverty, fallibility and ineffectiveness. Simply put, the death penalty is shown to be a massive policy failure diminishing the legitimacy of the criminal justice system in the world’s leading democracy.
Stack uses his reportorial skills to distill the complex subject of the American death penalty into a digestible form, yet he never cuts corners with the human dimension. This dimension is always at the center of crime and punishment and, most hauntingly, at the center of the American death penalty and its tragic frailties. True to its subject, Stack has written a very human book worth reading and worth sharing.