In a year when the death penalty continues to stir passions from Texas to Connecticut and beyond, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Oshinsky’s new book will help Americans better understand the history, politics and role of capital punishment in the United States.
In “Capital Punishment on Trial: Furman v. Georgia and the Death Penalty in Modern America, ” (University Press of Kansas, 2010) the University of Texas at Austin professor delves into the 1972 Supreme Court case that temporarily halted executions in the country but unexpectedly cleared the way for their return.
“We all have feelings about issues surrounding criminal justice, vengeance, fair play, retribution. Those are all part of the capital punishment story,” says Oshinsky, who doesn’t take a position for or against capital punishment. “The death penalty is the ultimate punishment. And if were going to keep it, we’ve got to get it right.”
The book is Oshinsky’s follow-up to “Polio: An American Story,” for which he won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in history.
Praised for his deep research and accessible writing, Oshinsky uses the personal tales of attorneys, victims and killers to tell the story of the Supreme Court case in which bitterly divided justices ruled that the death penalty was arbitrary, capricious and violated the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
“They all thought that was the end of the death penalty,” Oshinsky explains.
Instead, individual states — mostly in the South — methodically rewrote their laws to make capital punishment more consistent and equitable. For example, they limited the types of crimes for which people could be executed.
But questions continue to arise about how capital punishment is applied. Last fall, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was criticized when he replaced three members of a state panel looking into allegations of misconduct in the investigation of convicted murderer Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed in 2004. Evidence suggests Willingham was innocent, Perry’s critics say.
And in Connecticut, the governor last year vetoed a bill that would have abolished the death penalty. Much of the state remains horrified by a 2007 home invasion in which two parolees terrorized a family for hours before murdering a mother and her two daughters.
Oshinsky notes there are still racial elements to how the death penalty is used — that those who kill white victims are more likely to be executed than others.
He believes capital punishment will remain a form of punishment in the United States but will continue to get narrower, as demonstrated by Supreme Court prohibitions on executing juveniles or the mentally ill.
“Americans do believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that justice can only be found in the death penalty,” Oshinsky says.
Oshinsky is available to discuss his book or provide commentary on death penalty-related issues that arise.