Required reading: the death penalty

Looking for a deeper knowledge of the death penalty? Here are the books to read.

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Controversy over the US death penalty - ever-present since its reintroduction in 1976 - bubbled to the surface again last week. DNA evidence has proven that Damon Thibodeaux, who spent 15 years in Louisiana's Angola prison awaiting execution for the murder of a 14-year-old girl, is innocent. Thibodeaux becomes the 18th death row inmate to be freed as a result of new DNA evidence.

So is the US justice system sending innocent people to their death? Is the death penalty barbaric, irrespective of questions of innocence or guilt? Passions run high on both sides of the debate.

Dive into the argument with Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?, in which experts on either side, including the former Illinois governor George Ryan, lay out their positions. In 2000 Ryan suspended the death penalty in Illinois, arguing that death row convictions had been overturned so frequently that they could no longer be considered reliable.

For a broader perspective, see Michael Sandel's Justice. Published in 2010 but already a classic, the book is based on the legendary course taught by Sandel at Harvard. Sandel's purpose is less to persuade than to delineate the moral complexities in play: if there is an inalienable right to life and capital punishment is always wrong, he says, does this mean that abortion is always wrong, too?

Next, balance that broad thinking with a first-hand reflection. The Autobiography of an Execution is the memoir of the death penalty lawyer David Dow, who has represented more than 100 death row inmates across a 20-year career. Dow tells how his experience of a broken US justice system turned him from a supporter of the death penalty to a leading proponent for its abolition.

Finally - and only for those who can bear it - is perhaps the most controversial book ever published about death row. In 2004 the convicted murderer Richard Rossi published Waiting to Die: Life on Death Row, in which he reflected on his life on the row and regretted the 1983 killing - committed while high on drugs - that sent him there.