Ultimate Punishment

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Lawyer/novelist Scott Turow long accepted the death penalty as a necessity in some legal situations. He rejected the argument that the state should not be empowered to take the lives of any of its citizens regardless of what they did to warrant such punishment. His views changed as he questioned whether impartiality is possible when the competence of prosecutors may be linked to their securing guilty verdicts and when potential jurors opposed to the death penalty are routinely dismissed.

Turow contends that confessions, generally considered iron-clad evidence, may be obtained through questionable means. He has grave reservations about the testimony of both eye witnesses and jail-house snitches. The former may be so shocked when they witness a murder that they cannot identify perpetrators accurately. The latter, who trade testimony for leniency, obviously have a vested interest in involving the accused in ways consistent with what prosecutors need.

Turow was one of fourteen people Governor George Ryan of Illinois appointed to serve on his Commission on Capital Punishment. Ryan formed this commission upon learning that one in three death penalties in Illinois were imposed either on people ineligible for the death penalty or who were later, often through DNA evidence, proved innocent. In the light of such findings, even though he had long favored the death penalty, he declared a moratorium on executions, claiming the Illinois system was fraught with error. Governors of several other states followed Ryan’s courageous lead.