Scripps Howard News Service
May 26, 2000
By JAY AMBROSE
Here is what Scott Christianson could have done.
He could have taken the information he had accumulated about executions in Sing Sing and used his well-muscled rhetorical skills to write a passionate polemic, a book excoriating the death penalty in heated prose. His could have been a book crying out against the inhumanity of slaying those who may themselves have slain, but whose cruelty was no more cold-blooded than that of the government executing them.
He didn't, though. He did something more effective. In the book he did write, "Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House," Christianson presents material once hidden from public view _ mug shots of newly arrived prisoners, letters they wrote, information from their case files _ with little comment, almost scientifically. The result is wrenching, for what the reader must confront in this whispering evidence is the methodical, workmanlike extermination of human beings who, whatever their crimes, were still human beings.
It's the photographs that hit you hardest and indelibly lodge in your consciousness. You are drawn to the eyes, and in them you mostly see frightened, forlorn helplessness as Christianson writes of the faces, "resigned expressions before an indifferent lens." He notes that some in the photos "seem defiant, some bewildered, but most appear struck by an awful realization."
At least a few of the 614 people killed in the world-known death house between its first use in 1891 and its last use in 1963 may have been innocent, Christianson believes, and some were certainly insane and retarded, a horrible truth to contemplate. But many were clearly guilty and some clearly monstrous, such as the "lonely hearts killers," a couple that murdered three lonely women, or the gangsters who belonged to Murder, Inc.
Yet even their photos, accompanied by facts of education, age, religion, occupation and execution date, can cause you to stop and puzzle in awakened understanding about this business of strapping people in chairs and electrocuting them.
> Scott Christian and I are not strangers. We have been friends since we first worked together 30 years ago at The Knickerbocker News, a now-defunct newspaper in Albany, N.Y. That was before he earned a Ph.D. in criminology and went to work as a criminal justice official for the New York state government. But through his state positions and his current focus on writing books, he has never abandoned a certain understated intensity or his instincts as an investigative reporter.
It may have been inevitable, then, that he would examine the archival collection of the Sing Sing death house files after they were released. At that point, the death house had been closed, its electric chair sent southward to a museum, and the state's death penalty itself put to rest.
In 1995, however, the state enacted a new death penalty (this time by lethal injection), giving fresh relevance to the remarkable history the files contain.
I am someone who has gone back and forth several times in my life on the question of whether the death penalty is justified. It has seemed to me that it can be viewed as societal self-defense and that it can impart a sense of moral symmetry, helping in that way to quell the impulse to vengeful vigilantism. Lately, I have been troubled by the revelation of faulty death-penalty convictions in Illinois.
And, of course, there are the disparities in sentencing, not to mention the delays in execution that appear to rob the penalty of any deterrent value. The important achievement of "Condemned" is not in theorizing about the death penalty, however; it is in forcing the reader to look at it close up and thus get a firmer sense of what it really, truly is. If you favor the death penalty, you ought to know exactly what it is you favor. Based on the book, I will tell you this: It is a horror.
(Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard News Service. "Condemned" is published by New York University Press.)
AP-NY-05-26-00 0910 EDT
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