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Stay of Execution: Saving the Death Penalty from Itself
Stay of Execution: Saving the Death Penalty from Itself
Hoover Studies
Author: Charles Lane
Pub Date: 
August 16, 2010
Product Format: 
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The United States stands alone as the only Western democracy that still practices capital punishment. Yet, the American death penalty has gone into noticeable decline, with annual death sentences and executions dwindling steadily in recent years. In Stay of Execution, Charles Lane offers a fresh analysis of this unexpected trend and its moral and political implications. Lane argues that capital punishment should be preserved, while proposing major reforms to address its real inequities and inconsistencies.

Charles Lane is journalist whose career has taken him from Washington to Tokyo, Berlin to Bosnia, and Havana to Johannesburg. A former editor of The New Republic, Lane has written for The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and studied law at Yale. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


"Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane succinctly makes the case in this slim volume for shrinking the death penalty in order to save it. The Supreme Court has pruned around the edges in recent years, barring capital punishment for offenders who are mentally retarded or were juveniles at the time they committed the crime. But Lane argues that state legislators and Congress should now take the lead in ensuring capital punishment is reserved for 'the worst of the worst' crimes. He would limit the death penalty to acts of genocide, terrorism and the most heinous pre-meditated murders, such as those involving torture and rape, while excluding single murders committed in the course of more common felonies, such as robberies. Lane would also centralize state decision-making about who gets charged with capital crimes. He is not too concerned about alleged racial bias or executing the innocent, neither of which he says is as large or ineradicable a problem as foes insist. Rather, he is troubled most about the inconsistent way capital punishment is applied. But Lane's eminently reasonable proposals are unlikely to be well received among lawmakers skittish about ratcheting back the war on crime or local prosecutors reluctant to cede control over capital punishment. "-The Washington Post

"In his debut, Lane puts himself squarely in the camp of the 'pro-death penalty American majority,' yet believes that its application reveals 'troubling flaws.' Addressing the lack of a standards in sentencing that allows counties to act autonomously, Lane says that 'There is no  American criminal justice system,' but rather 3,141 criminal justice systems.' He studies the use and abuse of capital punishment, and uncovers statistical evidence of racism (until 1967, Southern courts defined the rape of a white woman by a black man as a capital crime.) Lane dismisses claims that the penalty is a deterrent, comparing the homicide rate in Canada, where the death penalty was abolished in 1967, with that of the U.S. Lane feels that the death penalty should be used sparingly, not as retribution but as a 'special penalty' for 'special crimes' in order to affirm the sanctity of human life, and breaking with the European Union's definition of capital punishment as a human-rights issue ('everyone has an absolute right not to be put to death by the state'). A member of the Washington Post's editorial board, Lane has produced a careful, considered examination of a divisive issue. "-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

"Lane, a Washington Post staff writer, approaches the perennially controversial subject of capital punishment from two angles. He assesses the cases for and against the death penalty, concluding that each has legitimate points and that each also contains some serious flaws (for example, one of the anchors of the case against is the idea that it's racially unequal, but, the author shows, the racial disparity is frequently overstated by death-penalty opponents). The real issue here, Lane says, is the apparent contradiction

surrounding the capital-punishment debate: polls indicate a majority of people support the death penalty, while they also believe that it is not a deterrent (which itself points up a flaw in the pro-death penalty argument). Not so much a discussion of whether capital punishment is right or wrong, or morally justified or repellent, the book is rather a thoughtful overview of the subject. Lane's conclusion about capital punishment-the law works, but it's application is clunky-is sure to provoke spirited debate."-Booklist

"This book is everything the debate over the American death penalty is not: thoughtful, morally serious, and careful with facts. Lane's book forced me, an ardent foe of capital punishment, to rethink some arguments I had once found persuasive. Whatever your views on the subject, this brief, engagingly-argued volume will challenge them. It should be required reading for everyone interested in this difficult subject."-Ben Wittes, fellow at the Brookings Institution

"The perennial death-penalty debate is crowded with partisans and absolutists twisting facts and data to reach ideologically driven conclusions. Now comes Charles Lane with a balanced, reasoned, factually and statistically meticulous analysis that dismantles distortions by both sides-and by various courts. Lane will disappoint abolitionists by showing support for the death penalty among Americans to be so strong, and with justification, as to make Euro-style abolition unlikely and unwise. He also demonstrates that the undoubted risk of executing innocents has been exaggerated and the racism that once infected death-sentencing so deeply has diminished. Lane will disappoint death penalty enthusiasts by showing that indiscriminate classification of robbery-killings and most other murders as capital crimes brings inconsistent application within and between states, injustices, and endless delays, with no clear proof that the penalty deters (or that it does not deter) crime. Lane ends with a promising proposal to limit the penalty to "the worst of the worst," such as multiple and serial murderers, those using especially monstrous methods, and imprisoned terrorists who orchestrate hostage-takings and killings from prison."-Stuart Taylor, Jr., contributing editor to Newsweek and National Journal

"Charles Lane has written a wise and balanced book about the death penalty. Few topics stir deeper feelings on both sides of the debate. Yet amidst the clamor, we lose sight of the facts, and have difficulty weighing the arguments for and against in a balanced way. This is just what Lane does. His account is a model of fair mindedness, and though some will disagree with his conclusion that the death penalty should be retained, though only for a narrower set of especially terrible crimes, few can fail to be impressed with the judicious manner in which he assesses the arguments of advocates and abolitionists alike. This book is must reading for anyone interested in the future of the death penalty, and in its relation to the principles of federalism and democratic government."-Anthony Kronman, Sterling Professor and Former Dean, Yale Law School

"Though partisans often reiterate old talking points in death penalty debates, Charles Lane in Stay of Execution shows repeatedly why there is so much more to learn and say about the modern administration of capital punishment in the United States. Though I have spent much of the last two decades studying and writing about the death penalty, I learned new information and gained new insights from every chapter of Stay of Execution. This book is a must-read not only for students of the death penalty, but for any and everyone concerned about the modern intersection of politics, policy and punishment."-Douglas A. Berman, William B. Saxbe Designated Professor of Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
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