Why the death penalty came back

And why it might be abolished

After decades of debate, US society still has not made up its mind about the death penalty. The popularity of the punishment has plummeted, with support dropping well below 50 percent from a high in the 80s in 1994. But deep ambivalence about it and its implications remains a key aspect of American culture, and the most serious problems associated with it have not been resolved.

Thus journalist Maurice Chammah’s book comes at an important time. When members of the Trump administration undertook to kill as many prisoners on federal death row as they could in the short time before they left office, they inadvertently highlighted the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the criminal justice system’s approach. This has coincided with public questioning about whether the government can ever be trusted to make life-and-death decisions, whether our criminal justice system can ever be just enough to hold in its hands the life of a human being, and whether people—with their central capacity for change—can ever be called evil enough to deserve to die at the hands of the state.

To trace the decline of the death penalty, Chammah, who works for the Marshall Project, focuses on Texas, which has been singularly responsible for more than a third of the 1,500 executions carried out in the United States over the last 50 years. He begins with a moment in 1982 when a small prison in Texas prepared to execute its first prisoner in 18 years. No one who worked in the prison unit responsible for these executions particularly relished the task. None of them knew anything about lethal injection. But they began a process that would become the deadliest in the country.