cover image Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in America

Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in America

John D. Bessler. Northeastern University Press, $47.5 (319pp) ISBN 978-1-55553-322-9

Over the last 100 years or so, executions in the U.S. have moved from the public square in front of huge daytime crowds to private killing chambers with few witnesses in the middle of the night. In his first book, attorney Bessler documents this shift with a lawyer's thoroughness. A little over half of the book focuses on 19th-century laws and trials and while there are plenty of interesting anecdotes and tidbits--botched executions, the role of phrenology, gag laws aimed to preventing newspapers from reporting on executions, etc.--it suffers from a numbing redundancy as Bessler goes through state after state comparing statues and court rulings. The final two chapters are refreshingly different, as he argues convincingly for reform of U.S. execution laws: ""elected prosecutors who seek death sentences and judges and jurors who hand them out must be required to pull the switches""; ""Executions must be televised""; ""no longer can jurors who oppose the death penalty be excluded from jury service."" Bessler contends that people who say they favor capital punishment are uninformed about it; the more they know the less they'll want it. To this end he debunks common death penalty ""myths"" and calls persuasively for a return to openness and accountability. Bessler rounds out the book with copious notes and an appendix listing 313 executions carried out between 1977 and 1995 arranged by time of execution: some 160 took place between midnight and 1 a.m. The seven illustrations do not mitigate the volume's unfortunately high price. (Oct.)