Why does America still have the death penalty?


In this podcast, David Garland, Professor of Sociology, Law at New York University and author of Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition talks to Benjamin Concannon Smith, co-host of the American Studies channel of the New Books Network. They explore….

– Why is it that the United States continues to enforce the death penalty when the rest of the Western world abolished its use a little over three decades ago?

– Many US states were in the vanguard of the 20th century abolition movement – what changed?

– Why does a country so concerned to contain the power of the state, nevertheless allow the state to take the lives of its citizens.

– Why are the majority of death sentences (which are always discretionary, never mandatory) meted out to black men convicted of killing white people – so that the death penalty is widely seen as ‘legal lynching’ among African Americans and Latinos.

– How come only ‘Death Qualified Jurors’, those who approve of the death penalty, get to sit on juries in murder cases, making murder juries overwhelmingly white and male?

– What is the role of aggravating evidence, ‘victim impact statements’?

– In the past, executions (burning at the stake, firing squad, beheadings) were violent and public, designed to demonstrate power and control . What is the role of lethal injection in relative privacy?

Dr Garland’s provocative study highlights the uneven application of capital punishment in America––a phenomenon widely discussed but rarely understood––and offers a succinct and thoughtful analysis of the historical roots of this contemporary issue.

The featured photograph concerns the execution of Troy Davis in 2011, in which Troy Davis was put to death for the 1989 killing of police officer, Mark McPhail.  Troy Davis’s case illustrates many of the issues explored in this interview – the black man convicted of a white person’s murder in a southern US state, the lengthy appeal process, the issue of doubt about the conviction and the the involvement of the victim’s family in ‘aggravation’ statements.

Professor Garland is Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law and Professor of Sociology at New York University. Peculiar Institution is the recipient of numerous awards including: 2012 Michael J. Hindelang Award (American Society of Criminology), 2012 Edwin H. Sutherland Award (American Society of Criminology), 2011 Barrington Moore Book Award (American Sociological Association), Co-Winner 2011 Mary Douglas Prize (American Sociological Association), A Times Literary Supplement Best Book of 2011, and the 2010 Association of American Publishers PROSE Award for Excellence.

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