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the Complete Review
the complete review - law / current events



Ultimate Punishment

by
Scott Turow


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Ultimate Punishment



Title: Ultimate Punishment
Author: Scott Turow
Genre: Law
Written: 2003
Length: 123 pages
Availability: Ultimate Punishment - US
Ultimate Punishment - UK
Ultimate Punishment - Canada
  • A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty
  • Includes the Preamble to the Report of the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment (issued April, 2002)

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting personal reflections and observations, but limited in scope

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 24/2/2004 Robert Verkaik
The LA Times . 12/10/2003 Sharon Dolovich
The Observer . 1/2/2004 Peter Preston
Salon . 17/10/2003 Tim Grieve
The Telegraph . 8/2/2004 Theodore Dalrymple
The Telegraph . 29/2/2004 Alec Russell
The Washington Post A 16/10/2003 Jonathan Yardley


  From the Reviews:
  • "Throughout Ultimate Punishment, he carefully reprises many of the commission's arguments. Although one always suspects Turow must be against the death penalty, he cleverly deploys the suspense of his fiction to raise doubts about his true position until the very last page." - Robert Verkaik, The Independent

  • "(F)resh, honest and memorable." - Peter Preston, The Observer

  • "This short book consists of Mr Turow's reflections on his experience as a member of the commission. His personal conclusion is that only abolition will work. The strength of his book is that it is the product of genuine open-mindedness rather than of an opinion firmly held from the very outset." - Theodore Dalrymple. The Telegraph

  • "Scott Turow's slim, poignant and hugely powerful musing on America and the death penalty. (...) But this is no abolitionist's cri de coeur. Rather it is a forensic and yet heartfelt and even troubled examination of the cases for and against capital punishment, and its spare and elegant prose will leave no side in the debate feeling short-changed." - Alec Russell, The Telegraph

  • "Turow's approach to these complex moral, social and political issues is to acknowledge the validity of the various answers that have been given and then to look at the facts, i.e., the practical evidence pro and con. (...) As one who has long wrestled with this issue, and who as an editorialist many years ago from time to time had to do that wrestling in public, I regard this as the most convincing, level-headed analysis of it I have encountered." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Like abortion, the death penalty is an issue of particular concern and popular debate in the United States. The US is one of the few high per-capita-GNP nations in the world where people are still regularly executed (Singapore and Japan are among the others, while the practise has essentially been abolished in Europe). Matters are further complicated in the US in that the death penalty is not available in all states, and that those states that do have the death penalty have different standards for when to apply it -- i.e. a heinous crimes committed in one jurisdiction may be punishable by death, but just a few miles away, in another jurisdiction, it may not be.
       In recent years the death penalty has come under additional fire because it has been determined that a significant number of people who have been sentenced to death are demonstrably innocent of the crime they were accused of (DNA testing, in particular, has led to the overturning of a considerable number of wrongful convictions). Among the states that did a particularly effective job of sentencing innocent men to die in recent years was Illinois. Governor George Ryan, who took office in 1999, found himself confronted with a situation where, since the reestablishment of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977, some 270 odd people had been condemned to death -- but that:

more than a third of the time Illinois had imposed a capital sentence on persons who either were not guilty, or, on second thought, did not deserve execution.
       It was the innocent people (thirteen, by that time, who had been exonerated) that were, of course, particularly worrisome (even some politicians are apparently somewhat squeamish about killing innocent people), but clearly the system was not functioning even beyond that. Governor Ryan declared a moratorium on further executions and named a fourteen-member Commission on Capital Punishment to recommend how the system might be fixed; lawyer and author Scott Turow was one of those appointed to the commission.
       Ultimate Punishment is Turow's very personal account of grappling with the issues over the two years that the commission worked. He describes the various issues, and, to some extent how he and the others on the Commission dealt with them. The focus is on his own reflections and observations as a member of the Commission, and so Ultimate Punishment is not a sweeping consideration of the death penalty. Nevertheless, even this Illinois-specific overview gives a decent insight into most of the death penalty-related issues.
       The Commission was charged with the task of determining:
What reforms, if any, would make application of the death penalty in Illinois fair, just, and accurate ?
       The more fundamental question of whether there should be a death penalty at all obviously hovers in the background, but is not one Turow (or the Commission) focussed on.
       Turow meets the worst of the worst murderers, describes some appalling crimes -- and some appalling miscarriages of justice --, and conveys some of the information gleaned from testimony from everyone from legal professionals to victims' families. He also writes from experience, both as an Assistant US Attorney and later as a lawyer working for criminal defendants.
       Most striking and perhaps disturbing is the sheer arbitrariness with which the death penalty is meted out. A very small number of murderers are threatened with the death penalty, and often, Turow shows, the penalty has little to do with the gravity of their crime, as murderers in similar circumstances often meet very different fates. (The statistical evidence is particularly unsettling, as Turow points out that a murderer is much more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white than a black person, or a woman rather than a man (while murderers who are themselves female are much more likely to be spared the ultimate punishment), or for a murder committed in a rural area rather than in, for example, Chicago.)
       Turow considers the supposed deterrent effect of having a death penalty, noting that there is no convincing evidence suggesting a deterrent effect of any sort. Turow finds that plausible:
My own impression, based on experience but little social science, is that murder is not a crime committed by those closely attuned to the real-world effect of their behavior.
       He takes victims (or rather the families of victims) into account as well, but while he understands that some families want an eye for an eye shows that, in fact, the desired closure isn't always available, even with the ultimate punishment. (The families of victims now seem to wield considerable power in determining whether or not a convicted murderer who is threatened with the death penalty is actually sentenced to it; a show of mercy often being enough to sway judge and jury -- another arbitrary element to who is sentenced to die and who isn't.)
       Turow even considers questions of cost (execution versus life imprisonment), and some of the consequences on society as a whole.
       The recommendations the Commission ultimately made included several points intended to assure more uniform application of the death penalty, as well as a reduction in the number of circumstances under which a criminal would be eligible for the death penalty (notably excluding the very popular felony-murder situation). Given how frequently ineffective counsel and/or what might politely be called excessive prosecutorial zeal played a role especially in the conviction of the innocent some recommendations were also made to better protect the rights of the accused. As Turow points out, the way the American judicial system works even new, exculpatory facts are very hard to introduce after the original trial stage (which is why almost all appeals focus on ineffective counsel and the like), and so it is important that defendants' rights are adequately protected at all stages of the process, beginning with the investigation. (Some of the prosecutorial abuses Turow cites are astonishing -- and even more astonishing is that, rather than seriously being taken to task (i.e. being deprived of their positions, law licenses, and liberty), these malfeasors are feted and praised (and occasionally go on to assume higher offices) -- that 'tough on crime' appearance apparently going a long way (though how locking away innocent people (and thus often keeping the guilty on the streets, where they continue to pose a threat) can be considered being 'tough on crime' is beyond us.))
       Turow does come away from the experience a changed man: a believer in the death penalty, he nevertheless loses hope in its just application in the real world (at least the real world as it looks in Illinois). When they were appointed only four of the fourteen Commission members were opposed to capital punishment, but by the end a majority supported the abolition of it in Illinois -- for reasons ranging from a fundamental objection to the certainty that the Commission's proposals would be ignored and abolition thus the only sensible alternative.
       Turow believes capital punishment will eventually fade away -- though he expects the courts (and specifically the Supreme Court) to do away with it, rather than politicians. His book certainly offers considerable evidence that, as it is practised in the United States, capital punishment is far from fair or, it would seem, justifiable.
       If Ultimate Punishment does reach a larger audience, it is possible that opinion can be swayed, to some extent, by the evidence Turow cites, demonstrating the fundamental and pervasive inequity of how capital punishment is applied. More likely it will, at best, lead to calls to tinker with the system -- even if, as Turow shows, it's probably more trouble than it's worth.

       Turow's book isn't particularly insightful, but it does cover a great deal of interesting territory. The many-layered and often not obviously relevant complications -- including Governor Ryan's political difficulties hovering in the background (and influencing his actions to an unknown degree) -- are particularly interesting, and Turow presents the material fairly well. In some ways it is also appealing that Turow's concern is so much more with what is workable rather than airy philosophical-moral speculation -- possibly also making it a far more convincing case against the death penalty for those who aren't necessarily morally opposed to capital punishment per se.

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Links:

Ultimate Punishment: Reviews: Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment: The death penalty: Scott Turow: Other books by Scott Turow under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Law-related books

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About the Author:

       American author Scott Turow has written numerous bestselling legal thrillers.

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© 2003-2009 the complete review

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