February 2004

Michael Schaub

nonfiction

Ultimate Punishment by Scott Turow

Even if Scott Turow is remembered for nothing else, he might have secured a place in American social history for originating the phrase "death penalty agnostic." Most Americans -- at least, most self-honest Americans -- can see at least a bit of themselves in the description. In Ultimate Punishment, Turow describes his own journey from "age of Aquarius" liberal and death penalty abolitionist to pragmatic, if reluctant, supporter of capital punishment. It was John Wayne Gacy, one of America's most evil murderers, who initially horrified Turow into supporting the death penalty. For the rest of us, it might have been Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden who made us question our assumptions about capital punishment. Even the most ardent abolitionist has to have doubts. It's easy to proclaim unflinching opposition to the practice of the state putting convicted murderers to death (and it's apparently extremely easy to do so if you're European), but there's always a lingering question: What if it were your friend or relative or loved one who had been tortured and killed by Gacy, or happened to be in the wrong building at the wrong time when McVeigh parked his Ryder truck and walked away? Conversely, what if it were your friend or relative or loved one who was falsely accused of murder and sentenced to die by a racist, classist judicial system? That's what Turow means by "death penalty agnostic," and many times, it seems like the only sane response to an unbelievably difficult issue.

But Turow won't just be remembered for the phrase. Best known for his legal thrillers (among them Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof), Turow is a rare thing: a mainstream mystery/suspense writer who has earned extensive critical praise for his novels. He's no stranger to nonfiction, either -- his 1977 law school memoir One L became a bestseller, and remains in print. Ultimate Punishment is more reflection than memoir, but it's beautifully done nonetheless.

The genesis of Ultimate Punishment was Turow's selection in 2000 as a member of an advisory commission appointed by George Ryan, then the Republican governor of Illinois. Ryan would later commute all the death sentences in Illinois, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, as well as the enmity of conservatives across the country.

Turow's chronicle of his attitudes toward the death penalty -- before and during his service on the commission -- makes for a pretty fascinating (although very short) reading experience. Turow warns his readers up front that the book isn't meant to be academic, and it's not, though it's written with gimlet-eyed intelligence and understated grace. (Turow's warning notwithstanding, the book still boasts 37 pages of footnotes, suggesting that old law school habits die hard.) And it might not be a scholarly monograph, but it definitely doesn't lack substance.

Turow addresses the subject of capital punishment from a number of different perspectives, and he shows a pretty impressive range in doing so. Considering Turow is a rather celebrated novelist, it's no surprise that he handles the personal perspective well, articulating both compassion and anger without wasting any words. It's the way Turow deals with the more objective aspects, however -- the political, the legal, the cultural -- that makes Ultimate Punishment such an accomplishment. It becomes pretty clear that Turow leans more to the left than the right, but he's still willing to address some of the more familiar abolitionist arguments. Both sides of the death penalty debate are guilty of oversimplifying the issue; both sides rely, to varying extents, on emotional appeals to make their case. Turow manages to avoid easy anger and sentimentality, while at the same time treating the issue with the gravity it deserves. And though he admits to being a "death penalty agnostic" in his younger years, he does carve out a position for himself by the end of the book. It's well-reasoned, smart, and level-headed.

And it's harder to do that than you might think. Hot-button issues like capital punishment have a way of becoming screaming matches within minutes. You can blame that on some imaginary cultural shift if you want; if I have to read another article on the breakdown of civility in public discourse, I'll start screaming. Emotional issues draw emotional responses; they always have and always will. But it's nice to see someone like Turow frame the debate in a markedly calmer, but no less sincere, manner. You might not agree with the conclusions Turow draws, but you can't accuse him of intellectual, or emotional, dishonesty. Ultimate Punishment might not be the last word on the subject of the death penalty, but it's one of the best published in America to date.

Ultimate Punishment by Scott Turow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374128731
166 Pages