Hardcover (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 978-1-5247-6026-7, 368 pgs., $28
January 26, 2021
If you were ambivalent about the death penalty, you won’t be after reading Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty. Maurice Chammah presents a smoothly written and clearly detailed glimpse from multiple perspectives at the heart of the death penalty in America in general and Texas in particular. From prosecutors to defense attorneys, defendants, victim families, judges and appellate courts, condemned men, the Death Row chaplain, and even the execution chamber tie-down team, Chammah paints a vivid, eye-opening portrait of the entire swirling, inexorable, imperfect business of the state exacting the ultimate penalty. The discord that lingers transcends the ultimate punishment and questions our very humanity. The troublesome subtext that threads the entire book is this: what in God’s name—literally—are we doing?
Conundrums abound: conservative Texans distrust big government, yet embrace the state process of execution or, as Chammah quotes Ron White’s succinct truism, “If you come to Texas and kill somebody, we will kill you back.” Governors, from Mark White through Dubya and including Greg Abbott, wrestle with clemency appeals, but their struggle, as with elected judges and district attorneys, is as much or more about the next election rather than conscience and the merits of a condemned person’s desperate final appeal.
Chammah traces the tortuous road of capital punishment through the evolution of several key players. Elsa Alcala is a child of Mexican immigrants who rises from modest means to become a prosecutor, a judge, and eventually a high court justice ruling on appeals of the very death sentences she successfully pursued herself. She begins her law career working for hardline Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes who proclaimed, regarding capital punishment, “We’ve got to scratch the retribution itch … otherwise, people will do it themselves.” Holmes’s strategy was described by colleagues as “Let’s kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out,” and his office passed out novelty pens shaped like the Death House syringes to assistant district attorneys, like Alcala, who attained a death-penalty sentence in a capital trial.
Opposing them was a ragtag band of overworked and underfunded defense attorneys like quirky, tenacious Danalyn Recer, scrambling for stays and commutation of death penalties as execution dates approach. For every defense victory—jury composition cannot be limited by race—there follows a new prosecutorial twist: expert witnesses can prove a convicted killer would be a continuing danger to society. The dance of death lumbers through years of clumsy appeals, victories, and defeats for both legal forces wrangling death sentences.
Chammah has the historical goods, the lopsided ethnic proportions represented on Death Row, which reflects a ghostly image of cause and effect: access to competent legal help comes with financial clout, which means no easy conviction, no syringe-pen award—a less attractive roll of the dice for a county prosecutor. And small-town financial limitations squeeze prosecutors (rural counties eventually pool their resources to create “murder insurance” to defray huge death-penalty-trial costs) and drive the death penalty cases into mostly big-tax-base cities like Dallas and Houston. Where a murder is committed and how much financial clout a murderer can amass has more impact on what penalty a convicted murder will face. One rural county had to hike property tax by 12 percent to pay the trial costs of one failed death-penalty prosecution and yet, as the district attorney lamented afterward, “What am I going to do if next week someone shoots up a child-care center?”
Chammah somberly traces the zig-zagging trails of hope, despair, resignation, and rage plodded by multiple Death Row convicts, some very clearly guilty, several very questionably so. Some are frighteningly reprehensible, some almost endearing, all of them pitiable. Karla Fay Tucker, whose flesh bore a macabre tattoo that scrawled a coincidental yet haunting mirror of Holmes’s mantra, “Kill them all and let God sort them out,” becomes the icon of rehabilitation and Christian redemption, but in an election year when the Texas governor was running for president, to no avail.
Tucker glides to the gurney with remorse and forgiveness for the executioners, a “good death” in what Chammah describes as a paradoxical medieval context in supposedly modern times. Others rumble to their deaths with a physical battle with the Death House strapdown team. The latter group do their job, quietly representing the state, the courts, the Texans for whom they must act—then suffer lifelong distress trying to justify what they’ve done. They grapple with the question that is the unescapable subtext of Chammah’s compelling, minute, and thorough study of the Texas Death House in Huntsville: what in God’s name are we doing?
Over time, public support for scratching the “retribution itch” or deference to the hope of rehabilitation comes and goes like a table of tides. Chammah suggests that the latter tide-pull may be gaining strength as forensic advancements overtakes junk science and raw emotion, proving, in retrospect, the innocence of more than one executed convict.
Meanwhile, the machinery of death grinds through capital-murder cases, slower maybe, but predictably, wrongfully, or just, in our name as law-abiding citizens. In the words of Buster McWhorter, a Huntsville tiedown-team leader, the execution staff continue to serve as “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
The question Chammah leaves the reader with is this: is that what we want them to do?
Maurice Chammah is a staff writer and the author of Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, which won the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award. His work has been published by the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New York Times. A former Fulbright fellow, he helps organize the Insider Prize, a contest for incarcerated writers sponsored by the magazine American Short Fiction. He lives in Austin, Texas.