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Where Lawyers Fear to Tread

This book was occasioned by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s blanket commutation of all death sentences imposed in his state to life imprisonment without parole.  Philosopher Hugo Bedau and U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell have compiled a collection of outstanding point-counterpoint essays from leading members of the academic, legal, and political communities, discussing the validity of capital punishment in contemporary America.  The arguments center on common themes: the utility of capital punishment as a deterrent; racial prejudice as a determining factor; incompetent defense for the poor; and due-process violations.  For all of these issues, the data, both statistical and narrative, are quite contradictory—so much so that the reader, in moving from one essay to the next, is hard-pressed to formulate a confident opinion.  This is hardly surprising, as the book reflects the ambivalence with which many people confront this emotional topic.

What is important, however, is that capital punishment is not portrayed by any contributor as, of itself, a metaphysical evil.  There is inherent agreement among most of the authors that, if defects in the justice system could be ameliorated, if execution could be proved a deterrent to crime, and if there could be absolute surety of the guilt of the condemned, at least a philosophical justification might be established for the death penalty.  Yet, for...

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