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Bar News - July 19, 2013

Book Review: Examining the Death Penalty Through the Stories of Parolees


Back from the Dead by Joan Cheever (Wiley Books: 2006)

On June 29, 1972, the day that the Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia and held that the death penalty was unconstitutional, there were 587 men and two women on death row. All of them were spared execution, and 322 of them were actually paroled after spending an average of 18 years in prison.

Joan Cheever went on a decade-long odyssey to find out what happened to them. Did they murder again? Were they “the worst of the worst”? What were their lives like after winning the death row lottery? She tells what she discovered in her book, Back from the Dead.

Cheever is an attorney and a journalist. She gathers the facts and tells compelling stories. The facts are these: Of the 322 men that were released from prison, 111 recidivated either because they committed a new crime or violated a condition or parole. Of those 111, 33 were considered “technical violators” and were either not send back to prison or served minimal set-back time. Of the remaining 78, who were returned to prison, 42 were charged with “non-violent” crimes, such as drug or alcohol offenses; 29 were re-incarcerated after having been convicted of violent felonies; two parolees were convicted of attempted murder; two were convicted of manslaughter; and three were convicted of murder.

Cheever wanted to know about the remaining 211 parolees, and she especially wanted to track down the infamous William Henry Furman – but that proved to be an ordeal.

The first death row survivor she spoke to was Lawrence Hayes. In 1971 Hayes, then 19 years old, participated in robbery in Queens, NY. An NYP officer happened to come into the store while the robbery was in progress, and Haye’s associate shot him. When Cheever found Hayes he was working as a crisis counselor for low-income women at a state agency in Brooklyn. Hayes credits the prison with giving him not only an education with marketable skills, but also the self-confidence that accompanies a college degree. While he was in prison he earned a BA from SUNY and a Masters of Divinity from New York Theological Seminary.

One by one, Cheever relates the stories of the former death row inmates that she finds. She doesn’t hold back on the details of the crimes that landed them in death row. And she describes the lives they are leading now with the objectivity of the journalist. What is so engrossing to the reader is that their lives are, for the most part, so mundane.

After 13 years of searching, Cheever finally finds William Henry Furman. Cheever approaches her meeting with great anticipation mixed with anxiety. What would she find? What kind of life had the notorious Furman led? What had he turned into?

Cheever’s book is a must-read for anyone who is ambivalent about the death penalty. Her book is not a polemic. She set out simply wanting to learn about these men and had no preconceptions about what she would find. She went where their stories took her. And in telling their stories without editorializing or embellishing, she dispels the myth that the death penalty is reserved for “the worst of the worst.”

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