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A Descending Spiral

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Member Reviews

This book was sent to me as an ARC on NetGalley. However all opinions are of my own.
This was interesting as we followed 12 cases, some of them were harrowing and left me on the edge of my seat. It was interesting to see how the prosecutors and juries had come to their decisions.
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"There has always been a strong presumption in criminal justice that the system got it right the first time: that defense lawyers did a competent job, prosecutors acted honorably, judges conducted a fair trial, and juries accurately determined the facts. The reality of the presumption, though, is hard to assess. "

In "A Descending Spiral," Marc Bookman educates the reader on the unfairness and imperfections of America's judicial system, and especially when it comes to deciding to implement the death penalty. In these 12 essays, Bookman covers police brutality and misconduct, corruption, mental illness, the factors behind false confessions, racism and xenophobia, as well as, the role unbiased police officers/lawyers/judges/juries could play in these cases. 

For those who have previously read or watched documentaries on incarceration and the death penalty, a lot of the information in this book will be familiar, but still shocking. It feels unacceptable that we're in the 21st century and Black jurors are still kept off juries and that detectives accused of misconduct usually come out of these accusations unscathed. And the saddest part is that this trust towards the system, makes it impossible for those wronged by it to challenge it and turn their lives around.

"Some losses, like liberty, can't ever be repaid and some wrongs can't ever be made truly right."

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for giving me the opportunity to read this ARC!
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Thank you to NetGalley and the people at The New Press for providing me an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.

A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays is a must read for everyone, and not only citizens of the United States or people against the death penalty. Since this book is a series of essays, it’s not the easiest to read in one sitting, especially with the dark subject. I certainly do not recommend reading more than a few essays per day, because the revelations of this unjust world will bum you out. Furthermore, the heaviness of the vocabulary (which is normal since it’s a book about legal stuff) can be draining or confusing at times but overall, A Descending Spiral has lived up to my expectations.

Whether you’re supporting or opposed to the death penalty, A Descending Spiral highlights multiple cases of clear criminal injustice, which seems to affect a lot of minorities. Some examples of victims of the capital punishment are Beauford White, and Andre Thomas. They might not be innocent people, but they were treated unjustly. If you read A Descending Spiral, you’ll know why in more details. In the meantime, here’s a bit of a summary of their experience with the death penalty.

Beauford White was present during the murders of six people, but he didn’t do the killing. In fact, he was shocked and opposed to the killings. Seven corrupted officers were involved in Beauford White’s case, including two detectives. Furthermore, twelve jurors (all the jurors) voted against the death penalty. Despite all that, Beauford White died by electric chair on August 28, 1987.

Andre Thomas is still alive, but that doesn’t mean he was any less spared from the unfair treatment of the legal justice.Andre Thomas killed his wife and her two kids, one of them being also Thomas’ biological child. He thought his wife was Jezebel from the Bible and that the two children were demons. Andre Thomas is also known for removing both of his eyes and eating one of them to stop the government from reading his mind. The guy was clearly not in a right state of mind, but that wasn’t taken into consideration when he was sentenced to death. Thomas was also in an interracial marriage, and some of the jurors said that interracial marriage is an abomination. Spot the problems…

If you want to read more about these two cases and many others, read A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays. If not, I still suggest you read that book, because it’s kind of an important subject.
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Marc Bookman’s essay collection A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays (The New Press, 2021) is a brutal and illuminating look at the death penalty in the United States. Bookman is the executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of death sentences in Pennsylvania. Prior to this, he worked as a defense attorney in the Homicide Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Bookman brings his wealth of real-life experience to “illuminate the misconduct, the biases and racism” that are inherent within the process of capital punishment in many states. 

Bookman’s text is organized into 12 individual essays, each discussing a different capital case. Bookman’s summary of each case is chock-full of legal information and ethical analysis. However, I did not feel overwhelmed by information. This was partly because of the book’s structure but also because of Bookman’s prose. It is clear, to the point, and meditative. As a reader, I felt I was being guided through the major concerns of the process capital punishment with each essay. I was unsurprised to learn about prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases, but I was shocked to learn how commonly defense lawyers as well as judges also commit misconduct in these high-stakes cases. Bookman makes it clear that this is a broken system, and you do not have to take his word for it. Instead, you can consider the case of Andre Thomas. In an essay entitled “How Crazy is too Crazy to be Executed?” Bookman takes the reader through the descending spiral of Thomas’s case. Thomas was convicted of killing “his estranged wife, his four-year-old son, and her thirteen-month-old daughter.” Bookman relays not only the horrific details of the crime but the twists and turns of Thomas’s life that led to this triple murder. The details are just what you would expect: an unstable childhood coupled with mental illness that began as early as the third grade. 

By the age of ten, Thomas had attempted suicide. Shortly after this incident, his brush with petty crime began. Bookman relays that “Three weeks before the killings, he overdosed on Coricidin—a brand of cough medicine—and wound up at a mental health facility in Sherman, where he asked the staff to kill him.” Six days after committing triple murder, “sitting in his cell, reading the bible, he gouged out his right eye with his fingers.” Thomas stood trial for his crimes and despite his obvious mental illness, he was sentenced to death. Bookman explains that “Death row is not designed for rehabilitation … [t]he main business carried on is waiting …. inmates like Andre, who are already debilitated by mental illness, do not get better.” The brutal facts of death row become alarmingly apparent when Bookman relays that eventually Thomas gouged out his left eye with his fingers and then ate it, all while on death row and all while not receiving the care that he needed to not be a danger to himself. The official prison evaluation form proceeding these events read that “he is not presenting delusional or paranoid symptoms, and that his ‘insight/judgement’ is fair.” In this essay, as well as within the others in his text, Bookman displays that these cases are not an exception to the rule. He prompts his reader to understand that most capital cases are fraught with this kind of neglect and misconduct. He encourages us to understand that capital punishment is not a system that is sustainable. 

Another memorable essay in Bookman’s collection is “Smoke,” an essay that relays the case of Rafiq Fields. Bookman served on the defense team for this murder case, and as a result, the essay is at times extremely personal. Bookman candidly explains the differences they had with their client. Fields explains what he thinks of as their “communication” problem. Bookman recalls that: 

“[W]e didn’t understand what he was saying, we didn’t understand how his neighbourhood worked, we didn’t understand what kind of people the dead guys were. What he never said…was that every member of our team was white, and he wasn’t. Not that he was too polite to say it; rather, it was too obvious. In short, we were on one side of the chasm, and Rafiq Fields was on the other—we had no way to reach him but to keep trying, and we did this over and over until the very day of the trial.” 

Moments like these are what make Bookman’s text so excellent—he seems to have a 360-degree view of the issues pertaining to capital cases. However, he is also quick to point out when something is just beyond his grasp, just like he does here when looking back at the Fields case. At the end of his essay “Smoke”, Bookman tellingly states that “The imperfections of our criminal justice system merely amplify the imperfection of our lives. That much is for sure, that much is certain.” This quotation sums up Bookman’s approach to disentangling the descending spiral that are these cases. In his essays, Bookman highlights how these injustices spread and take root in people’s lives. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about capital punishment in the United States, anyone interested in criminology or law, or anyone looking to read some excellent non-fiction.
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This book is tough to read at times but is incredible. Everyone should read it, but especially those who think the death penalty is in any way good or useful. This book beautifully shares stories, hard truths, and insightful words of wisdom. If you want to find good articulation for your opposition to the death penalty, this book will help you. If you are unsure if the death penalty should exist, this will help you see the horror, terror, and pain it causes. If you think the death penalty is good, this will help you see how misguided you are.
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I know some people are genre loyalists, but try to bounce around and try new things - and nonfiction is always a genre I end up loving. With that, happy belated #PubDay to A DESCENDING SPIRAL: Exposing the Death Penality in 12 Essays by Marc Bookman, and thank you to @netgalley and @thenewpress for the chance to read an eARC to review.

Even though I'm a fairly fast reader, this one took me quite a while to get through - only because the content was heavy. Bookman, a longtime, capital defense attorney, attempts to breakdown the many issues with the death penalty and how it is, unfairly, handed out. From touching on racial bias in the jury, judge and lawyer, to lazy investigative practices, to poor representation, to conversations around complex mental health issues, Bookman systematically breaks down many of the issues found in death penalty cases and offers a compelling argument for ending the practice.

For fans of JUST MERCY, this book thats the conversation one step further and provides plenty of real-life examples that will have you frustrating, thinking, "how the f*** do people think this is okay?", and crying for those were unfairly or unjustly executed.
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