Friday, August 22, 2008

"I never believed it would be me."

On May 28, 2002, Napoleon Beazley was executed by the state of Texas. He was the 19th person executed in the United States for crimes committed as a juvenile since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Not until March 2005, with the US Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons (No. 03-633), did it become unconstitutional to execute offenders who were under the age of eighteen when their crimes had been committed.

"The jury came back ten against two in favor of life without parole. The judge overruled it and sentenced me to death." - Roy Burgess Jr.
The title of Susan Kuklin's No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row and the description on the book jacket are a bit misleading since only two of the men who speak were actually sentenced to death. But I think this actually works in favor of the book, since it gives voice to people, besides the convicts, who have also been affected by the legality of the death penalty.

No Choirboy includes few statistics, and you won't find dry arguments debating the pros and cons of the issue, either. Instead, there are six chapters, each told by people whose lives were changed forever as a result of murder and the death penalty. Roy Burgess Jr. was sixteen and Nanon Williams seventeen when they were arrested for the murders they were ultimately convicted of, convictions that resulted in them both spending years on death row. At age fourteen, Mark Melvin killed a man. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole. Napoleon Beazley's mother and younger brother discuss his life, and their lives after he was executed. William Jenkins was sixteen when he was murdered, his brother was thirteen and his sister, ten. The family requested that the prosecutor not ask the jury trying William's killer for the death penalty. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, teaching law and fighting the death penalty.
"He was executed three days after I graduated high school. I went to my graduation. I was a zombie. I can't remember nothing about the graduation. I don't even know what I did with the diploma. I can't remember who was there. I can't even remember who gave me a graduation gift. I was a walking zombie." - Jamaal Beazley
As you'd expect from a book about capital punishment, No Choirboy is an intense, powerful read. All of the first person accounts are honest, sometimes brutally so. While a few of the subjects are limited in what they are able to say about the murders that led to the death sentences for legal reasons, they don't hide their shortcomings or mistakes when it comes to other topics. A few photographs and images, either taken by Kuklin or provided by the folks she interviewed, are interspersed through every chapter, adding to the immediacy of the first-person accounts and making them seem even more personal.

There is a definite anti-death penalty slant that runs throughout the book, giving it a cohesion that might otherwise be lacking in a collection of first-person accounts. However, even though I'm personally opposed to the death penalty, I think it would have been interesting to also get the perspective of a death penalty supporter, one who had lost a loved one to murder, with the murderer still on death row or already executed. But No Choirboy is still worth reading, a thoughtful look at the death penalty that hits home in ways that mere statistics can't. And if you're a death penalty opponent to begin with, you should definitely check this book out.

* Title quote from interview with Nanon Williams, p. 92.


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1 comment:

Colleen said...

I've got a review for this one coming out next month and I thought it was really interesting. The part that got me the most that all of the young men (one who admitted he committed the crime but was bizarrely coerced by an older sibling, the other two are appealing)talked about how they wasted time when they were younger, that they didn't know what was important or what mattered. The message I took away from all this was the importance of better schools, better paid teachers, more programs for at risk youth, etc. They all accepted responsibility for making bad choices; it seems like one thing we as a society should be doing is making the good choices easier to find.