This book is several things: an intimate and humane argument against the injustice of capital punishment, a critique of other anti-capital punishment literature, and, as Louisa Thomas, writing in The New York Times
described Mary Clearman Blew's This is Not the Ivy League
: "a kind of anti-memoir — an incredulous account, a catalog of confusion."
David R. Dow has been representing death row inmates for 20 odd years or so. Once a proponent of the death penalty, he got started in the business as an academic exercise: early on in his career he set out to compare the competancies of lawyers representing death row inmates in Virginia, Florida and Texas. What he found was troubling enough to take up the mantel of defense of men and women sentenced to death, most of them guilty of absolutely heinous crimes, not out ofany great sense of compassion for them but out of a strong belief in the Rule of Law, which, as we find in Autobiography of an Execution
, most prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers don't seem to give a damn about. Dow's argument against the death penalty is this: if the system is this screwed up, no one can expect justice from the system. If the system by which the state administers justice is too screwed up to administer justice then that state does not have the authority to execute anyone.
I rest my personal opposition to the death penalty on a belief in the sanctity of human life, QED. This position falls flat however, when taking it in argument against someone (or some system) that does not recognize or believe in sanctity. Dow's position is very important, then, for abolitionists. He offers an abolitionist position that does not rely on a belief in the sanctity of human life.
AOAE is Dow's account of how the Rule of Law has broken down in capital cases in Texas; we are taken through five or six narratives (Dow is bound by legal code and ethics not to share identifying details about his clients, and these narratives represent cases that he and his colleagues have worked on, though names, dates and identifying details have been changed) that demonstrate what happens when a man or woman is sentenced to death. Dow takes the reader through a light crash course in the legal basics and what he and his colleagues go through to prevent their client's executions. Dow has a strong moral backbone and makes his case against capital punishment skillfully and subtlely. I was furious after reading of the institutionalized callousness of the death penalty machine: that a man may go do his death because a computer server was down and his lawyer left unable to file a motion in time. That a judge would write an op-ed saying that in angered him he couldn't schedule dinner parties on nights of executions because the last minute phone calls from lawyers trying to save a man or woman's life (no matter how heinous that person may be) disrupted his dinner. The ridiculous sense of priviledge and entitlement that those in power have blew my mind. I am a lowly bench scientist, but if there is work for me to do after five o'clock, I stay at work until its finished. I don't think that we should expect any less from lawyers or federal court judges.
Dow does not reward himself for his work; he is far tougher on himself, as a lawyer, as a father, and as a person, than he is on the machine that he fights so ruthlessly. I've never read a memoir by anyone who knows the facts of them selves so well, and yet is so honest in their refusal to fake a linear narrative of their lives. This is a true anti-memoir: Dow has far more questions for himself than he has answers for the reader. This is a fitting stance to take, as it puts the reader in the mind to question themselves, as well, and once in a questioning mood, perhaps question whether we, as a nation, may put a man or woman to death and call it justice, when we know so little of our own motivations.
There was some poor editing: Jeremy Winston has two life stories, making it too obvious that he is, in reality, at least two people. Also, if I, as a fellow bourbon drinker may quibble: Dow once mentions that after his first capital case, he took a case of Jack Daniels with him to his cabin on Galveston Island. Later, he refers to such as 'A case of bourbon'. Sir, if you were a true bourbon drinker, you would know this to be false. An Autobiography of an Execution
is highly recommended as an excellent (anti) memoir, and for those readers who care about the administration of justice.