Marc Bookman’s essay collection A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays (The New Press, 2021) is a brutal and illuminating look at the death penalty in the United States. Bookman is the executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of death sentences in Pennsylvania. Prior to this, he worked as a defense attorney in the Homicide Unit of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Bookman brings his wealth of real-life experience to “illuminate the misconduct, the biases and racism” that are inherent within the process of capital punishment in many states.
Bookman’s text is organized into 12 individual essays, each discussing a different capital case. Bookman’s summary of each case is chock-full of legal information and ethical analysis. However, I did not feel overwhelmed by information. This was partly because of the book’s structure but also because of Bookman’s prose. It is clear, to the point, and meditative. As a reader, I felt I was being guided through the major concerns of the process capital punishment with each essay. I was unsurprised to learn about prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases, but I was shocked to learn how commonly defense lawyers as well as judges also commit misconduct in these high-stakes cases. Bookman makes it clear that this is a broken system, and you do not have to take his word for it. Instead, you can consider the case of Andre Thomas. In an essay entitled “How Crazy is too Crazy to be Executed?” Bookman takes the reader through the descending spiral of Thomas’s case. Thomas was convicted of killing “his estranged wife, his four-year-old son, and her thirteen-month-old daughter.” Bookman relays not only the horrific details of the crime but the twists and turns of Thomas’s life that led to this triple murder. The details are just what you would expect: an unstable childhood coupled with mental illness that began as early as the third grade.
By the age of ten, Thomas had attempted suicide. Shortly after this incident, his brush with petty crime began. Bookman relays that “Three weeks before the killings, he overdosed on Coricidin—a brand of cough medicine—and wound up at a mental health facility in Sherman, where he asked the staff to kill him.” Six days after committing triple murder, “sitting in his cell, reading the bible, he gouged out his right eye with his fingers.” Thomas stood trial for his crimes and despite his obvious mental illness, he was sentenced to death. Bookman explains that “Death row is not designed for rehabilitation … [t]he main business carried on is waiting…. inmates like Andre, who are already debilitated by mental illness, do not get better.” The brutal facts of death row become alarmingly apparent when Bookman relays that eventually Thomas gouged out his left eye with his fingers and then ate it, all while on death row and all while not receiving the care that he needed to not be a danger to himself. The official prison evaluation form proceeding these events read that “he is not presenting delusional or paranoid symptoms, and that his ‘insight/judgement’ is fair.” In this essay, as well as within the others in his text, Bookman displays that these cases are not an exception to the rule. He prompts his reader to understand that most capital cases are fraught with this kind of neglect and misconduct. He encourages us to understand that capital punishment is not a system that is sustainable.
Another memorable essay in Bookman’s collection is “Smoke,” an essay that relays the case of Rafiq Fields. Bookman served on the defense team for this murder case, and as a result, the essay is at times extremely personal. Bookman candidly explains the differences they had with their client. Fields explains what he thinks of as their “communication” problem. Bookman recalls that:
“[W]e didn’t understand what he was saying, we didn’t understand how his neighbourhood worked, we didn’t understand what kind of people the dead guys were. What he never said…was that every member of our team was white, and he wasn’t. Not that he was too polite to say it; rather, it was too obvious. In short, we were on one side of the chasm, and Rafiq Fields was on the other—we had no way to reach him but to keep trying, and we did this over and over until the very day of the trial.”
Moments like these are what make Bookman’s text so excellent—he seems to have a 360-degree view of the issues pertaining to capital cases. However, he is also quick to point out when something is just beyond his grasp, just like he does here when looking back at the Fields case. At the end of his essay “Smoke”, Bookman tellingly states that “The imperfections of our criminal justice system merely amplify the imperfection of our lives. That much is for sure, that much is certain.” This quotation sums up Bookman’s approach to disentangling the descending spiral that are these cases. In his essays, Bookman highlights how these injustices spread and take root in people’s lives. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about capital punishment in the United States, anyone interested in criminology or law, or anyone looking to read some excellent non-fiction.
Please add A Descending Spiral to your Goodreads shelf.
A copy of this proof was graciously provided to Jesyka via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.