I just finished reading May God Have Mercy by John C. Tucker. The take-away point of this post is this: I think you should read this book, whoever you are.
The book is about the Roger Keith Coleman death penalty case. Coleman was convicted in 1981 of raping and murdering his sister-in-law, sentenced to death, and executed in 1992. Among the numerous procedural nightmares associated with Coleman's experience in the criminal justice system was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court decided, 6-3, not to intervene where the state had dismissed an appeal that had been filed one day late. (If you read the book it turns out that the delay wasn't just sloppy lawyering, but a good-faith misinterpretation of when the time limit began to run.) Identified as "a case about federalism" in the first sentence of Justice O'Connor's majority opinion, the Coleman decision is a shining example of the Rehnquist Court's long-standing hard-on for states' rights and limited protection for prisoners.
On some level the Coleman decision is defensible. The Court wasn't necessarily condoning the state's draconian adherence to its procedural rules; it was limiting the role of the federal judiciary in state criminal proceedings and entrusting state courts with most of the heavy lifting with respect to the protection of criminal defendants' constitutional rights. The Warren Court had greatly expanded the landscape of prisoners' rights and the Rehnquist Court diligently scaled back these liberalizations. For those who thought the Warren Court went to far, the Rehnquist Court's agenda of removing federal restrictions on state criminal procedure and granting states more power and flexibility was anything but objectionable.
What makes the Coleman decision less than palatable is the fact that Coleman himself was almost certainly innocent. This also makes May God Have Mercy extremely depressing. From the very beginning, you see criminal investigators hurrying to identify a suspect under pressure from the mob-mentality of a small Appalachian mining town. It's clear that the investigators had let their suspicions of Coleman guide the search for evidence rather than the other way around. The trial is abysmal, with Coleman's inexperienced court-appointed lawyers demonstrating the worst kind of incompetence (though, to their credit, they did appear to stay awake during the trial, unlike the lawyers in many Texas death penalty cases). The vigorous appeals activity and the growing crusade to prove his innocence are inspiring, but also demoralizing in light of the completel lack of interest and cooperation on the part of the state and the stubborn refusal of federal courts to get involved. Tucker reminds us repeatedly, if somewhat dejectedly, that under current Supreme Court doctrine the execution of an innocent person does not violate the constitution if there are no violations of procedural due process.
Which is not to say that the system treated Coleman fairly. While state officials appeared to maintain a good-faith belief that Coleman was guilty, there are numerous instances where the state was either needlessly uncooperative with Coleman's attorneys or actively obstructive in preventing them from finding the truth. The federal courts, meanwhile, through a combination of arrogance, laziness, and good ol' federalism, were more than happy to let the state do whatever it wanted.
May God Have Mercy is not a flag-waving treatise against the death penalty. It's a very personal story about a handful of individuals. Really, what makes the book so jarring is how effectively Tucker is able to humanize Coleman and the people fighting for him. In the background are the notions that Coleman's story is not necessarily unique, that his story is indicative of numerous fundamental flaws of capital punishment, and the sense that, God damn it, you should get up and do something about it. But Tucker isn't condescending enough to spell these things out for you. He forces you to discover and confront them yourself as you get to know the individuals involved. Ironically, by writing a book about Roger Coleman, John Tucker reduced him from the media icon against capital punishment he became in the early 1990s to a genuinely human figure, making it all the more difficult to read about everything he and the people he loved went through.
I've never considered myself to be particularly passionate about the death penalty. On the record I've always been against it to varying degrees and for various reasons. I think it's barbaric, I think the racial inequalities in its application are undeniable, and I believe there is simply no way to avoid executing the occasional innocent party. I didn't read this book because I'm against the death penalty, and I'm not recommending it because I think you should be against the death penalty. I'm recommending it because it's a gripping story about real people, and because it raises issues about the criminal justice system across the board (not just with respect to capital punishment) that are important to consider. But make no mistake -- this is not a book to read if you're already depressed. Indeed, I believe this is the only book ever to make me cry.