... sober, densely reported ... promises a history of 'the rise and fall of the death penalty.' But as it tells that focused tale, it becomes — almost unwittingly — a case study that speaks more broadly to our current moment, about building monumental change brick by brick ... If Chammah can be a dry writer, he is at his most enjoyable in unpacking the philosophical puzzles raised by the death penalty. He understands that the questions given to juries and judges in such cases are among the most profound that human beings can answer ... Along the way, we learn frightening and funny and astonishing things about the justice system, and the death in particular ... Throughout the book, such details stand out — and compensate for the fact that Chammah’s writing can be workmanlike and staid. At times, there are almost too many lines of fact to keep track of — too many minor characters whose names we must recall, too many sad death cases to keep straight. Sometimes you long for a through-line ... Then it hit me. The book’s form and its limitations underscore its barely explicit but unmistakable thesis: that change doesn’t happen because of singular heroes; that it isn’t elegant or linear; that it comes through the planting of many seeds, only a small number of which will sprout; that you never know precisely where you are in the process. In a way, the book is a tribute to legwork ... Chammah is here to remind us that in our lifetimes a sea change has happened. It’s not over yet. But it’s a triumph all the same. And if you’re one of those people who despair that nothing changes, and dream that something can, this is a story of how it does.
Chammah’s strength as a writer lies in his synthetic approach, which assesses the law itself and its actors (defendants, defense lawyers) in pretty much equal measure. It’s a book pitched straight into the gulf between universal theory and individual experience ... has the icy finality of an autopsy report, and the same intimate particularity.
... nuanced ... Chammah includes perspectives from many sides of death penalty cases, from victims’ families to the warden in the execution room. His outstanding storytelling and thorough research make this an excellent analysis of modern legal and criminal-justice history.