Marc Bookman writes about the death penalty in “ A Descending Spiral ”


From the first death penalty appeal he worked on, Marc Bookman understood how crucial writing can be in matters of life and death. The verdict form was missing only one “s” – an error that changed the meaning of the verdict enough to overturn the sentence.

The case also left him with the feeling that the entire death penalty system may be arbitrary and even absurd, a view that was cemented when he joined the first team of lawyers dealing with homicide cases for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. In 2010, he co-founded the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a nonprofit resource center on the death penalty.

Over the years he has applied his writing skills to articles published in Atlantic, slate, and Mother Jones, among others. His first book, A downward spiral: denouncing the death penalty in 12 attempts, published by The New Press, was released this month. The essays – some dealing with cases he has worked on, most of the cases studied in public records – sidestep moral arguments for and against the death penalty and reveal the weaknesses of the system in practice.

Bookman will speak as part of the Free Library Virtual Authors Series on May 20 at 7:30 p.m. he spoke with The Inquirer about his book and his life’s work. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

On a personal level, the death penalty has become a very important issue for me in 40 years. When you work closely in the system on the defense side, you see how outrageous the death penalty is.

There are moral arguments on both sides. But there’s a reason the prosecution is trying to limit what the jury knows about the person charged, because if the jury spent 30 minutes just talking to the guy – if he’s seriously mentally ill, what? ‘it is malfunctioning or that it just did an absolutely terrible thing. thing – the jury would never vote to execute it. Jurors would immediately see the humanity in the person, regardless of how it manifested.

I would like to think that this book sheds light on how hypocritical our capital punishment system is. It is a public policy. I have a feeling that the more people know how the capital punishment system really works, the less support they will have for this policy.

Percy St. George was one of my very first capital cases – one that was withdrawn after it emerged that the detectives had fabricated statements, and the detectives then pleaded the fifth. I had another case that was incredibly early in my career where a guy was very drunk, shot his wife, called the police and had a bottle of whiskey in his hand when they came to arrest him. But in the discovery, there is no evidence of alcohol. We continue to file motions asking, “Where’s the alcohol?” They continue to deny that there is alcohol. Finally, just before the trial, the person at the crime scene starts to get nervous and returns to find out. It turns out that they took a lot of pictures of the alcohol, but they didn’t develop any.

This case and Percy St. George were among my first five homicide cases. So what is a normal person thinking? They go out of their way to convict on the highest charge, no matter what. When did I realize how corrupt this business was? Early, really early.

First of all, it’s important to say: These cases seem absolutely absurd – but people shouldn’t come back thinking these are 12 scandalous, crazy, out-of-the-ordinary cases. What is important about this is that they are typical of capital cases.

I would take a subject: there are sleeping lawyers, racist lawyers, drug addict lawyers. There are lawyers who are about to be struck off. I just looked for an example. Each of these stories, when I go into them, is a better story than I thought, and each is just the tip of the iceberg. Often times you speak of such a low level of advocacy that it is remarkable – and lives are at stake.

For example, often when a lawyer gives a jury an example of reasonable doubt, he or she gives a hypothesis. So this defense attorney said, “A reasonable doubt is a hesitation that you would have in a serious matter in your own life. Say, for example, you want to buy a car, its price is reasonable, then you look under the hood and you see rust. It makes you think. Then you look a bit more and realize that the rust is not that important. So you buy the car. He’s a lawyer who doesn’t even understand his own hypothesis! The assumption is that the rust is supposed to give you a reasonable doubt about the car. He tells the jury that he bought the car.

Terry Williams’ story sums up pretty much everything that is wrong with the death penalty. He’s a kid that older men have been preying on since he was 13 years old. I think most people would say that if you are sexually abused and you kill your abuser, you are not the worst of the worst. So one might think that the reasonable prosecutor, even if he believes in the death penalty, might not ask for it in this case.

Instead, the prosecutor is doing everything possible to get this death sentence. Her first case is about this sexual abuse – and the jury returns with third degree murder. This conviction has since been dismissed.

And then in the second trial, after the prosecutor fails to obtain first degree murder in the first case, she then goes on to the second case excluding all evidence of sexual abuse. [The prosecutor in the case has denied that any evidence was withheld.] Then there is a defense lawyer who does not seek to find the evidence he needs, who only meets the client one day before the trial. And you have a case that should never have been momentous in the first place.

This story captures everything: a bad practice of law and a Commonwealth that refuses to address the facts of the case. And he’s just a kid. What else do you need?


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