Saturday, January 08, 2005


Open and Shudder

Back in 1819, John Cecil authored Sixty Curious and Authentic Narratives and Anecdotes Respecting Extraordinary Characters: Illustrative of the Tendency of Credulity and Fanaticism; Exemplifying the Imperfection of Circumstantial Evidence. As far as I know, it's the first work of its kind, devoted to case studies of innocent defendants who were sent to jail and to the gallows on the basis of flimsy or perjured evidence. The cases are not all blatantly obvious miscarriages: in some the evidence seemed to be strong, only to be found much later to be wrong.

Cecil's book remains, sad to say, as timely as ever -- though it's quite rare now. Some civic-minded fellow should transcribe it online. It would certainly make an apt companion to Sister Helen Prejean's new book The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Prejean's follow-up to Dead Man Walking has been the subject of favorable reviews in Newsday and the Christian Science Monitor, though CSM's Steve Weinberg notes:

Unfortunately, though, Prejean's reportage is less compelling than her logic. Her presentation of the Williams and O'Dell cases show questionable conduct by police, prosecutors, and judges, to be sure. But, after reading each account, I am uncertain about the innocence of either dead defendant. That uncertainty, should it exist in the minds of other readers, will make it difficult to generate new opposition to the death penalty.

Well, yes. But in the end, I suspect it's not the bloody-minded public who will end the death penalty: it's the Supreme Court. And there, the logic counts over the reportage. Perhaps the most compelling legal case against the death penalty is offered up by Judge Jed Rakoff, profiled this week in the New York Times, who has been arguing against it on the basis that it violates due process. You can't appeal, after all, when you're dead.

Surely that shouldn't matter in open and shut cases, right? Surely. And John Cecil has Sixty Curious and Authentic open and shut cases for you to read.

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