ULTIMATE PUNISHMENT by Scott Turow
Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book’em.....take our poll!
(February 17, 2005) Sometimes, life is about being in the right place at the right time. And sometimes, book club selections can be about being timely. Book-'Em met to discuss Scott Turow's Ultimate Punishment three hours after the jury announced their sentence in the Scott Peterson case!
While better known for his fiction, this is Turow's second non-fiction work. It is subtitled A Lawyer's Reflections On Dealing With The Death Penalty. In 1995, Governor Ryan of Illinois called for a moratorium on executions and formed a 14-member commission to study "what reforms, if any, would make application of the death penalty fair, just, and accurate?" The author served as a member of this commission.
Turow is an able writer; the book is clear and concise, logical and informative. It presents both the pro and con arguments and incorporates his personal experiences to enhance the clinical appraisal given. While two members of our group felt that the material could have been adequately presented in a magazine article, there are only 119 pages of text and the book is not burdened with "legal speak" and obscure case references. One comment was: "I felt I was getting a look into the workings of the legal mind. There was an orderly and careful laying out of the facts and considerations."
We polled the group on their attitudes about capital punishment prior to and after our reading. A substantial majority opposed the death penalty both times. Most interesting though, was the movement towards a more questioning, unclear "undecided" middle in all but two cases.
The Peterson trial served as an excellent reference point as we shared our own opinions, concerns and questions. As Turow does in the book, we looked at the life without parole alternative, eligibility factors for invoking capital punishment, jury versus judge sentencing, and the victims' (survivors') rights movement. The latter raised real concern as to whether the murdered child of an articulate mother, the murdered parent of young children and a murdered victim with no survivors are all viewed equally. We shared a conviction that the concept of victims' rights in these cases may be too influential on juries and may undermine the idea that all life is valued equally.
And we reached the disturbing conclusion that the ultimate issue and problem may not be the death penalty itself, but rather the seeming ineptness of our law enforcement agents, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the justice system in this country. Interstate disparities repeatedly surprised us.
While it is unlikely that other groups will have the same immediacy of a media over sensationalized trial and death penalty verdict to accompany the reading experience, Book-'Em is going on record to recommend this title. The grim nature of the topic did not detract from a thoughtful, stimulating and honest flow of questions, feelings, and ideas. And if your group is feeling ambitious, combine Ultimate Punishment with Reversible Errors, Turow's novel themed around capital punishment.
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