Vol. 13 No. 8 (August 2003)

KISS OF DEATH:  AMERICA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE DEATH PENALTY by John D. Bessler.  Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003.  189pp.  Cloth. $47.50. ISBN: 1555535674.   Paper.  $18.95.  ISBN: 1555535666.

Reviewed by Adelaide H. Villmoare , Department of Political Science, Vassar College.  Email: Villmoare@vassar.edu .

His personal and professional life haunted by the death penalty, attorney John D. Bessler is thoroughly involved in his subject (he has previously written about lynching and execution in his home state of Minnesota).  He grew in Manakato (MN) “where the largest mass hanging took place” (p.xiii), and he has worked pro bono on death penalty cases in Texas.  Bessler’s intentions and stance are unequivocal as he unfolds his critique of the death penalty in the United States.

The main thesis is that violence begets more violence, and the death penalty contributes to the cycle of violence.  This “barbaric form of punishment” (p.69) has nothing constructive to offer our society in Bessler’s view.  Government energies should be devoted to policies that can lessen violence (e.g. gun control laws), not to those like the death penalty that legitimate and expand it.

Exploring Americans’ love/hate (more love than hate) relationship with violence and the death penalty, Bessler argues that vengeance provides the main support for executions.  But this form of vengeance has transformed from being up-close and personal to distant and invisible.  The vengeance is now remote, unconnected from our lives and sense of responsibility.  Executions have been removed from the public eye; Bessler believes they should return to public visibility through television.  He is convinced that bringing us closer to executions and those subject to them is the right thing to do and may diminish support for the death penalty (pp.115-118).

Bessler paints portraits of those sentenced to die to show that they, too, are victims – of violence, mental illness, isolation.  He wants his reader to see the condemned as individual human beings, to understand them – even those who have committed horrible crimes.  One portrait is that of his client, Clifton Belyeu, mentally ill and involved in crime and violence much of his adult life, who was executed after a deeply flawed case against him.  We do not like Belyeu, but, after Bessler describes the man and his life, even the most serious proponents of the death penalty will doubt that he should have been executed.

As Bessler writes, his book is “part memoir, part essay, and part telling of true stories” (p.xvi).  In all its dimensions it is against the death penalty.   His anti-death penalty arguments are familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the capital punishment debate in recent years – e.g. its arbitrary application, the conviction and execution of the innocent.  There are no new data here, although his personal stories add life to the argument.  He talks, for instance, of his surprise in learning about cases conducted by private prosecutors paid for by families of murder victims (p.16).  One wants to hear more about the legal status and conduct of these cases, but Bessler does not explore those aspects nor tell us as much about his own experiences as one would like.

The book suffers somewhat from the mix of memoir, essay, and stories.  Bessler moves in and out of issues and approaches, without a clear structure to knit them together.   That may have been Bessler’s intent, but chapters do not cohere as effectively as they might.  More memoirs from his death penalty cases would have made a more compelling read.  Still, his passion about violence in American society and the death penalty’s role in that violence come across effectively. 

Copyright 2003 by the author, Adelaide H. Villmoare.