(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

What could be a better substitute for sheep-counting than a book of nonfiction on the death penalty? Add a pinch of historian and presidential biographer and a sprinkle of statistics, and the result promises a reliable recipe for a soporific evening. The formula is not a new one. One anticipates an inedible if generous repast: ponderous page upon page slathered with tiresome facts, graphic descriptions of the methods of death, and predictable cruel-and-unusual-punishment arguments. The reader is pleasantly surprised, therefore, to encounter a book which could well pass as a novel, and which keeps him or her turning pages until the end. William McFeely’s Proximity to Death is well crafted and intriguing.

As one might expect, the author’s purpose is not merely to entertain. His appeal is to those who, like himself, oppose the death penalty and to the innate humanity that drives those who favor it out of concern for the families of the victims. McFeely holds little illusion that the book will occasion a metanoia in those who staunchly support killing those who kill. He does feel compelled to tell the story nonetheless.

His own opposition to capital punishment precedes the event that provoked his writing this book. In 1995 he was called to testify as an expert witness at a pretrial hearing for a Georgia murder case. He expected little more than to drive into town, do his stint on the stand, and return to his research. The experience so moved him, however, that as he drove away from the courthouse, McFeely was prompted to dig deeper into the subject of capital punishment. His experience of facing it graphically for the first time in his own life, literally in the faces and lives of those accused and potentially sentenced to be killed for their crimes, motivated and shaped the project. The particularity of the people involved—certainly the lawyers and prosecutors but most especially the accused—drew him into writing a book that would re-create this experience for the reader. “Murderer” has become for him no longer an anonymous collective of those convicted of killing others but a fleshy litany of persons with significant histories, pain, and the possibility of an empty future. The author invites the reader to join him in his journey into the scrapbook lives of accused murderers and those who try to keep them from being killed.

An interesting device is used to frame his story and his passionate argument and to draw the reader into the plot. The proscenium that serves as the introductory matter in several of the chapters is a description of the physical setting in which the events he plans to describe take place. The reader walks with McFeely into “the law’s palace,” taking in the elegance of the county courthouse that dominates the landscape of Sparta, Georgia. It is difficult to miss the embodiment of what passes as Southern justice in the Victorian gingerbread and massive blocks of brick. Politeness of space slip-covers over the violence that is meted out within its walls, hiding its tears and its blemishes. Violence to human persons, as McFeely perceives capital punishment to be, is gentrified by the prescribed procedures of the justice system. Lawyers and prosecutors, judges, and jury—each speaks appointed lines and acts out the plot until the inevitable final curtain falls heavily on the accused.

Later the reader accompanies McFeely into the shabby digs of those who try to keep death for the accused at bay. Here the set is dressed in sharp contrast to the expected affluence of the paradigmatic law office. The decor is good intentions and stark walls rather than ponderous thoughts and corporate paneling. No expensive art hangs to signal the fee schedule. Rather, posters espousing antideath themes compete loudly with the white paint. The energetic idealism that hangs on the walls in the random portraits of lawyers who have interned here announces the cost of engaging those who work here. There is no photo gallery of the corporate partners but rather a crazy quilt wall of snapshots of the criminally accused. The metaphor of hope in the face of incredible odds is stark.

Finally, scenes are set in a Southern prison, sanitary behind sharp wire. It holds the lifeless life of a man who will never be able to use his summa cum laude education outside its walls; it is the backdrop for the action which the author wishes to portray. The solitary cell of the accused killer, tiny, dank, and dark, seems apt in the face of his circumscribed possibilities. Knee to knee in the visitors’ room, McFeely interviews a man who will never leave confinement nor wear clothes other than prison...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)