Angel Of Death Row, by
Andrea D. Lyon (Hardcover, 2010)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This is an excellent book written in a personal style. It was engaging and
While it's obvious from the title what the author's stance is on the death
penalty, I think even if you are for the death penalty you won't find
this book propagandistic. What comes through to me is that the author is
telling us about her experiences in defending people who are on death
If it were propagandistic, it would probably paint prosecutors and/or
judges in a negative light. Actually, some of them are painted that way
and we can understand why when we see what they did. But others are
portrayed as competent, caring people who are on the other side. The job
they are doing is essential, and it benefits society. From the author's
perspective, it seems that competent prosecutors are the majority and
they share her conviction that the accused deserve a rigorous defense.
The problem is that not all prosecutors share that conviction and not
all defense attorneys do either.
The author does not, as some have indicated, seem to think that we should
let violent criminals get away with their crimes. In fact, her view is
the opposite. When an innocent person is convicted of a crime, the one
who did it gets away. Execution exacerbates this problem.
Traditionally, opinions on the death penalty have been based on opinion.
Increasingly, people are changing their opinions based on the facts. I
did that, myself (see Background, after the review).
I was a bit alarmed to see the foreword was by Alan Dershowitz. After
reading several of his articles some years ago, I concluded he should
not be writing articles. So, I skipped the foreword because I have no
desire to read anything he says. I realize he's a big name and the
intent was to have a high status endorsement of the book. Fortunately,
the book jumps out of the chute and does just fine without an
endorsement. I think for many potential readers, his name there is going
to set them immediately against the book. Please do not make this
While I am sure the author is factual (the pieces fit
together well, no holes or contradictions), she does use some elements
of fiction. This is a plus, not a drawback. For example, she begins the
Introduction just the way a good novel should begin. Instead of boring
you, it starts off with what writers call a "hook." I was immediately
The rest of the book contains twelve chapters,
acknowledgements, epilogue, reader's guide, and a short "about the
author" spread across 267pages. A few of these pages are blank (a
chapter or section always starts on an odd-numbered page, so sometimes
there's a blank at the end of the preceding chapter or section). Call it
250 pages. Engrossing ones, at that.
I had initially thought each of
the twelve chapters would focus on one case, so we'd be looking at
twelve death row inmates. That isn't how the book is constructed. I
didn't count the number of cases while reading, and don't wish to go
back and try to do that now. What I can tell you is that the story of
each of these people was enormously interesting and different from the
rest. The author must have had some rationale for picking these
particular cases, but she doesn't say what it is.
In some of these
cases, it seems people were convicted for the crime of being black. This
issue is reflected in death row demographics. With 13% of the nation's
population being black and about 50% of death row inmates being black,
something seems askew. But it gets worse in some states. In Kentucky in
1996, 100% of its death row inmates were black.
But this book isn't a
tome on how blacks are being sent disproportionately to death row. Read
the horrendous case of Deidre, and you'll understand that very clearly.
The scales of injustice, it seems, are sometimes color blind.
author seemed to go to great lengths to present a factual picture of
things. Given her background, I found her presentation surprisingly
fair. I didn't feel manipulated, proselytized, or preached to. As a
reader, I felt the author was taking me by the hand and saying, "Let me
show you what I saw."
Ms. Lyon's personal biases on the issues covered
in this book must be in the work no matter how hard she tried to
eliminate them. For this reason, I recommend Scott Turow's early
writings on the death penalty. Unlike Ms. Lyon, he didn't particularly
have a horse in this race. Now, I am not saying Ms. Lyon came across as
biased. I am only it isn't reasonable to presume she could be 100%
dispassionate on death penalty related issues and good to read other
works on those issues.
This book is the product of meticulous copy-editing, which is something
I personally consider a huge plus. I do not like having to translate
from Pidgin English. It's nice to see a work with attention paid to the
mechanics of grammar and composition.
Should you buy a copy of
this book? No. Buy several. Give one of those to your local library, and
give the others to thinking people who would appreciate something
substantial to think about.
In early adulthood, I was for the death penalty. After seeing
how the IRS can execute people without a trial or any sort of due
process, I started to have my doubts about a death penalty for criminal
offenses. But I still justified my belief in it for criminal cases,
noticing the vast difference in rights accorded violent criminals versus
the utter lack of rights for IRS victims. For example, you have the
right of discovery in criminal court. I also thought the burden of proof
was on the prosecution (in IRS cases, it's not and that includes those
"adjudicated" outside the courts by some hourly worker with an attitude
and far too much power).
Stubbornly, I held on to the idea that certain criminals should be
put to death. Perhaps it's because in the winter of my senior year in
high school, one such criminal raped a classmate of mine and then left
her headless, naked body in a snow bank. Her body turned up the spring
thaw. Coincidentally, this occurred in the author's home state.
I also agree with freedom advocate Ted Nugent that "I don't like
repeat offenders; I like dead offenders." Mr. Nugent made this remark in
reference to the right to self-defense against violent criminals (Mr.
Nugent is not just a rock and roll musician. He is a US Federal Marshall
and is heavily involved in charitable works, in addition to serving
society in other ways). But there is a huge difference between
permanently stopping a violent criminal who is attacking you, and
letting the state errantly railroad innocent people to the electric
chair or lethal injection. I didn't understand this difference until I
began to understand how utterly broken our (in)justice system is.
The light came on when I read a book written by Scott Turow, an
Illinois attorney who had set out to document why the death penalty
should be reinstated in Illinois. This was part of the work authorized
by the Ryan Commission on the Death Penalty. Before he completed his
digging, Turow changed his mind completely. The sheer number of innocent
people convicted was staggering.
In reviewing the cases, Turow came across egregious examples of what
I like to call "marsupial magistration," another name for kangaroo
courts. Then there were the statistics. Ms. Lyon also includes many of
them in this book, and Turow reveals many others. Ms. Lyon doesn't
discuss the enormous financial cost of the death penalty (far more than
life in prison), but Turow does.
Just a week before I read this book, I watched the drama-mentary,
"Exonerated." It was an in-depth exploration of a few individual death
row cases and what went wrong. That work, Ms. Lyon's work, and Turow's
work all bring to front of mind "But for the grace of God, there go I."
It's not just our criminal courts that put innocent people through
torture and to death. A movie called "Rendition" brings up another way
our nation treats innocent people with disdain and shreds the Bill of
Rights, as do the shocking accounts of the Hoyt Fiasco and the AMCOR
You could be on death row yourself, despite not having done anything
wrong. Here's a layman's warning that may keep you from going there. In
all of the cases I have seen, the victims did one thing wrong. They
spoke to the police without an attorney present. Never do this. There is
a very good reason the Miranda warning includes that line about anything
you say being used against you. It doesn't matter if you are under
arrest or not, say nothing. While I am very glad we have police,
they are never the "friend" of anyone questioned during a criminal
investigation. Don't confuse them with one, no matter how reasonable