Book Review: A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays

A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays, by Marc Bookman, The New Press, 2021, 222 pages, $22.30.

Patterns emerge from death row. While racism plays a driving force on both sides of the aisle and from the bench, and inept defense lawyering often goes hand in hand with prosecutorial misconduct, there is another impelling cause of death sentences – severe mental illness. … Finally, there is the capriciousness of the capital punishment system, and what public policy operates on the basis of capriciousness?  pp. 216-7

Last Friday night, while blissfully indulging in discretionary reading, I came across Lendel Lee’s story.  DNA evidence proved that four years earlier, in April 2017, he was wrongly executed by the state of Arkansas. For more than a decade and up until he was lethally injected, he insisted that he did not commit the crime. As expected, or I should say, as usual, the Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who at the time was ramping up lethal injections, defended the execution by claiming he was merely following the law. Others in the criminal justice system who might have had a hand in Lee’s conviction and death sentence remained unmoved and would resort to alternative theories justifying the righteousness of the execution, such as the old standby that whoever left that DNA was Lee’s accomplice, or the DNA does not prove anything.

A few days earlier, I received a pre-publication copy of a book from my good friend Alan Yatvin, suggesting that I might want to review it. The title was intriguing, but it was the subtitle that caught my attention. Sighing, I thought to myself, not another death penalty book! It would have to wait its turn. So, I put it at the bottom of the pile of books waiting their turn to be read. However, as I stared at Lee’s photograph, with his last words echoing in my ears, I set aside the book I was reading and reached for the one at the bottom of the pile, A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays. I am glad I did.

Over the years I have read a fair number of books on the death penalty written by legal warriors like Bryan Stevenson, who have devoted their careers to representing God’s forsaken and least wanted, who, for the most part, are guilty of having committed unspeakable crimes against fellow human beings. Yes, there are wrongly accused, such as Lendel Lee, but thankfully they tend to be the exceptions.

In death penalty cases most of the time it is about finding compelling reasons that would motivate jurors and judges to spare the life of the accused. Invariably, behind the crimes committed by many charged with capital crimes, there are legitimate, moral, and humane reasons to stay the hand of vengeance. Anyway, these somewhat autobiographical books generally recall cases lost and won, trials and tribulations, vicissitudes and capriciousness of the players and the courts, and so on. The reading is not light. Even the occasional happy ending is not so happy – not when considering the protracted legal struggles, the years behind the bars, the hangman’s noose dangling over the head in the form of a syringe loaded with a deadly cocktail dubiously claimed to make the killing more acceptably humane.

A DESCENDING SPIRAL is not a compilation of war stories, though in the last essay Bookman recounts one of his own cases. The title comes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic quote: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy” (just look at the ongoing events around the globe). But the giveaway is in the subtitle: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays. And Bookman does just that, he exposes “a world where misconduct is spotted but not punished, where biases and racism are rotting but not revealed, where injustices are argued but not recognized.” The collection of heart wrenching stories illustrates the misconduct, the biases and racism, the injustice of capital punishment “[that] are more the rule than the exception,” which need to be reckoned with if progress is to be made in ending this barbaric, vengeful, inhumane practice of legalized humane killing.

Marc A. Bookman

What makes this book interesting and well worth reading, is that in these 12 essays, you are exposed to all that is wrong with the death penalty and why it needs to be abolished. Even if you think you know all there is to know about the death penalty, A DESCENDING SPIRAL will not fail to inform. Bookman is a preeminent death penalty lawyer, having cut his teeth as a public defender trying homicide cases in Philadelphia, he is now Executive Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. He comes with vast experience, appreciating the hidden nooks and crannies of this highly complex field, from the front line of the trial courts to the appellate courts, where so much of the legal life-saving maneuvering takes place.

But Bookman is more than just a superb lawyer; he is also a formidable storyteller and a gifted writer. Each essay has been storyboarded so that the focus – that, which is being exposed – is teased out and revealed in a multi-layered fashion, with no two essays mirroring the same structure. This collection of short stories, eclectically selected, individually, and collectively, gives a birds-eye view of what is, has been, and will remain wrong in imposing the death penalty.

Being no starry-eyed idealist, Bookman navigates the reader in each story with uncanny simplicity, narrates matter-of-factly with a restrained yet eloquent understatement that evokes and provokes. No rants, no sermons, no amplifications.

Bookman lets the facts breath, without forcing a message or aiming for heavy handed persuasion. Removing layer by layer any illusions harbored by death penalty advocates that it is a just, humane, and equitable punishment, Bookman enlightens the reader without imposing his views. Having sufficiently been informed through the 12 essays, the reader is well-placed to draw his or her own conclusion on the legitimacy of imposing the death penalty knowing, as exposed, the flaws in the system and the capriciousness with which it is applied.

Normally I would sample some of the essays for you. Not this time. My strong advice is that you read this book. Marc Bookman’s A DESCENDING SPIRAL – Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays is simply superb.

Ending on a more personal note, I want to express my deepest admiration and appreciation to Marc Bookman and all others like him who selflessly and at great personal sacrifice, tirelessly and far too often thanklessly, represent our fellow human beings facing the death penalty.         


Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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