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'Executing Freedom' examines the evolving role of the death penalty

Emory history professor Daniel LaChance's debut book looks at more than 50 years of shifting American culture and how it has altered perceptions of the death penalty.

How is it that the same Americans who don’t trust the government to collect garbage efficiently and spend tax dollars wisely put their faith in government killing our worst criminals?

To get the answer, Emory historian Daniel LaChance looked at 50 years of shifting American culture. Changes to the way Americans thought about freedom, he argues, tracked changes in the way they saw the death penalty. That finding is at the heart of his debut book, “Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States,” published by the University of Chicago Press.

“I’ve long been interested in the place of punishment in our society,” says LaChance, who got his first glimpse of the criminal justice system by watching his father defend accused murderers in courtrooms in a state without the death penalty.

“Criminal trials, sentencing hearings and execution ceremonies are spectacles,” LaChance adds. “They are more than an outraged community’s response to crime. They are occasions where we reveal our deeply held beliefs about the relationship between the individual and the state.”

In the book, LaChance examines everything from Supreme Court decisions to local newspaper coverage of district attorneys to Hollywood movies, showing how ideas about freedom are at the heart of Americans’ complicated relationship with the death penalty.

In the years following World War II, many saw welfare-oriented social programs as a force for freedom and held government’s powers in high esteem. Liberal experts who had helped win the war were seen as capable of “fixing” the problem of crime.

Tapping into psychiatric and sociological knowledge at the time, those experts concluded that crime stemmed from people who society had denied the opportunity to become productive citizens. Fix that inequality — by tackling such societal issues as poverty and broken homes — and criminals could be rehabilitated.

“Crime was seen as the symptom of a sickness, and elites were very confident in the ability of psychiatry and social programs to treat people who had committed even the most horrible crimes,” LaChance says. “From that viewpoint, the death penalty seemed irrational.”

Pendulum swing

LaChance shows that the pendulum of public opinion would swing right as the crime rate rose dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. Disillusionment with government and skepticism about its ability to rehabilitate followed. Rehabilitation was increasingly seen as a soft, coddling response to crime. 

Though a punitive response to crime became a way for whites to express anxiety about social changes during the Civil Rights era, LaChance argues the resurgence of retributive responses to crime was more than just a backlash against upended racial hierarchies.

Growing media coverage of people such as spree killer Charles Starkweather and popular books such as “In Cold Blood” revealed young white male murderers as a symptom of moral rot that had infected the dominant culture.

“Almost universally, these young white men were sentenced to death by a public that believed that they represented an individualism, a freedom to be whatever you want, run amok,” LaChance says.

The result was a move from the idea of the violent criminal as sick, and able to be rehabilitated, to evil and in need of condemnation. Rehabilitation-oriented government had become part of the problem, LaChance says, for seeing illness where it ought to have seen evil. Prison became seen as a revolving-door experience that regularly put dangerous criminals back on the streets. Judges were seen as taking the side of criminals, allowing them to evade justice by taking advantage of legal technicalities.

Thus began the split that creates the contradiction LaChance sees today. District attorneys and law enforcement officials who began pursuing the death penalty were seen as mavericks, taking on a rotted system for the moral good. By the mid-1990s, a whopping 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty.

The slow decline of the death penalty in recent years is not a result of yet another shift but the merging of those previous trends, LaChance argues.

That’s because the death penalty has become mired in the very government bureaucracy that supporters in the 1970s expected it to transcend.

Americans support the idea of making criminals pay but culturally are willing to do so only when they can be sure of the need, requiring costly and time-consuming judicial review, LaChance says.

And, while death penalty cases drag on for years and sometimes decades, lawmakers have created a firm “life without parole” option that has proven less costly and appears more punitive to criminals.

 “The death penalty is no longer doing what it was supposed to do, punish criminals severely and quickly," LaChance says. "It was once a symbol of finality and moral clarity. Now it’s increasingly viewed as another failed government program.”

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