One L’s Turow crusades against death penalty



On Thursday, October 9, author Scott Turow presented his upcoming book, Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty. Turow also discussed the writing of his famed account of Harvard Law School, One L, before a book signing that followed his presentation.

“Capital punishment is a subject that almost no one in the country is detached [from],” observed Turow. “I’ve never criticized anybody’s position on the death penalty, because the truth is that over the years I have held all of them.”

After analyzing the current debate between life imprisonment and the death penalty, Turow came out against the death penalty. He discussed the reasons of general deterrence, cost, specific deterrence and compensating the victim before dismissing each as flawed.

“The fact that the death penalty is a deterrent is not visible to the naked eye,” asserted Turow, citing Texas, where they execute “people in an alarming rate and still [have] a murder rate that’s higher than the national average.”

One socially prominent reason for the death penalty is to satisfy the retributive urges of the victims and their families.

“Tell me another crime that we allow the criminal to end up better off than the victim,” demanded Turow. However, he believed that this mandate was flawed because “if we really believe that we should execute for the sake of victims, then we would execute in almost all first degree murders.”

Regarding the cost benefits of the death penalty over life imprisonment, Turow asserted that it simply is not true.

“It turns out that satisfying procedural requirements (answering people like me) costs 35% more than simply leaving someone alive for the life they are expected to live,” emphasized Turow, adding, “which of course in a prison is shorter than normal life expectancy.”

The strongest argument in favor of capital punishment, according to Turow, is the general demand that “for ultimate evil is the ultimate punishment.”

“We believe in the death penalty as a symbol,” Turow commented. “Americans want this not because of deterrence or costs, but because of what it means to them, what it says about their own value system. They want it as a statement of value that the restraints that they live with daily are worth living for.”

The problem with this reason is the precision it requires of the justice system, according to Turow. In order for the justice system to determine what constitutes ultimate evil, the emotions of the jury, which often turn on the heinousness of the crime rather than the cogency of the evidence, are “arbitrary.”

If, as it may, capital punishment punishes “for getting the wrong lawyers,” asserted Turow, “then we’re not sending the unequivocal moral message that we think we’re going to send with capital punishment.”

Currently a partner in the Chicago Law office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Turow’s involvement in death penalty issues includes, most notoriously, his defense of Alejandro Hernandez, co-defendant of Rolando Cruz, which resulted in an exoneration after 11 years in prison. Turow’s research and opinions were also crucial components of his two-year position on the Illinois board that reviewed the state’s capital punishment policy.

“I recognize that those years I spent as a death penalty agnostic were years I spent asking myself the wrong question,” reflected Turow. “I was asking myself: Are there cases where the death penalty is right? What I should have been asking was: Can we construct a legal system that reaches those ‘right’ cases without also sweeping in the ‘wrong’ cases? My conclusion is that it is inevitable that we will also sweep in wrong cases.”

Turow’s account of his first year of law school, published as One L, is infamous among law school students as a reason not to go to law school – particularly among HLS students who continue to guess the real-life counterparts to Turow’s fictionalized characters. The stress that Turow endures during his initiation to hornbooks and the Socratic method is foreboding to many law school students.

“It was a great way for me to live through what was one of the most emotional and momentous events of my life,” Turow stated. “I came here very confused about who I am. Law students can say: At least I’m not as crazy as he was.”

Turow’s experience has often been characterized as inaccurate, however, because the source of his stress is not the overwhelming work of law school, but instead the commitment to publish a book. Turow explained that he never wanted to write nonfiction, but because of “enough rejection slips to paper several rooms,” he agreed to publish the book.

“One of the things I had noticed was that there was not a good nonfiction account about what life was like as a law student,” commented Turow. “But I wasn’t suggesting I do it.”

He received a contract from Ned Chase, father of Chevy Chase, without even knowing that he had volunteered to write the book.

“He wrote a contract on the spot,” recounts Turow. “He said all the meat is hung in the first year, have him write a book on that.”

Turow’s latest book, Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty, was released this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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