The recent execution of the convicted Oklahoma City bomber seems to have temporarily quelled the ongoing debate about the death penalty. Unrepentant and undeniably guilty, the bomber facilitated his own execution by refusing to file further appeals. Yet a new book that takes an intimate look at the death penalty from the point of view of those most closely associated with it reveals that the issue's complexities refuse to disappear quietly.
Journalist Ivan Solotaroff's The Last Face You'll Ever See is not a comprehensive history of capital punishment. Rather, it's a detailed look at a small group of people who speak with authority on the subject corrections officers, executioners, prosecutors and death row inmates.
This well-researched narrative provides a wealth of background information on the penalty. In medieval times, the condemned would pay for their own executions in advance, hoping to ensure a quick and easy death. Executioners themselves often lived apart from the communities they served, sometimes quite comfortably. Even today many executioners' identities are kept secret, and in some states they wear masks while performing their duties.
Solotaroff looks at the impact of capital punishment on those directly involved with it, but he also goes further, questioning the true motivation for the punishment an issue his sources have clearly spent some time wrestling with as well. Although he arrives at no easy answer, Solotaroff notes that executions are steeped in ritual and believes that the penalty's significance goes beyond an individual and his or her crime. Former warden Donald Cabana adopted an abolitionist stance after presiding over several executions at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary. He contends that executioners should be replaced by the judge, prosecutor and jury foreperson at the trial. Tellingly, one of the reporter's sources who has the most ardent pro-penalty stance is a prosecutor, far removed from the imminent possibility of execution shared by death row prisoners and guards alike.
Well-balanced and nonpartisan, Solotaroff's book presents a number of opinions. Indeed, it's a thought-provoking look at a part of the death penalty process about which most people would rather remain ignorant. The Last Face You'll Ever See may not change the reader's mind about capital punishment, but it's sure to give a much deeper understanding of modern execution.