Barnes &
Law: Books on Law by Tom McInerney


The Ultimate Punishment

Scott Christianson's CONDEMNED: INSIDE THE SING SING DEATH HOUSE offers an entirely different treatment of criminal justice issues. Filled with photographs, documents, and records of death row inmates, Christianson's display of the death penalty's human dimension produces an emotional, visceral effect on the viewer. Made possible by the recent opening of records from the 606 men and women executed in the electric chair between 1891 and 1963, "more than at any other American prison." christianson's light-handed approach to this volume--providing just enough background material to contextualize matters--allows the visual history to cry out. One might consider this an american equivalent to Chris Riley's and Scott Niven's book of pr-execution photographs of Pol Pot's victims in Tol Sleng, Cambodia. As in that shocking book, this volume captures the sense of bewildrment and immanent horror which await the condemned.

For a short book with little text, there is a poignancy to CONDEMNED lacking in lengthier prose discussions of capital punishment. Death-row images of gangsters, illiterate immigrants, disfigured youths, mothers, and fathers combine to illustrate the horror of the process. Recalling Meeropol's essay, previously discussed, renders devastating the final letter from their parents, the Rosenbergs, reprinted in CONDEMNED ("You must come to believe that life is worth the living"). Similarly, when juxtaposed with a telegram from "an American" who importunes Sing Sing's warden to "have the privilege of pulling the switch on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg," the barbarity of the process becomes undeniable. As all of the books considered here suggest, beneath the veneer of professionalism, civility, and procedural fairness of our criminal justice system exists a beast few dare to confront.

Tom McInerney is a lawyer and freelance writer who lives in New York. He is a regular contributor to the nationally syndicated radio program "The Law Show" and serves as chairman of the Books-at-the-Bar Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.