Maurice Chammah’s debut book “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of The Death Penalty,” (Crown, 2021) opens with a lesser-known historical fact: In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Furman v. Georgia, that the death penalty was unconstitutional because it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
For a brief moment, it appeared as though capital punishment might come to a permanent end. Across the majority of states, backlash against the ruling was swift. Texas rushed to rewrite laws that would make executions, which were rare at the time, routine. In essence, the Lone Star State became the symbolic epicenter of capital punishment, influencing how the rest of the country viewed crime.
What makes Chammah’s journalistic writing so captivating is his ability to tell a good story; he filters meticulous research and reporting through the voices of complex people who are closest to the realities of capital punishment. We are introduced to a prison chaplain, a prison worker on the “tie-down” team, death row prisoners, family members of victims, lawyers, and judges who fall on either side of the death penalty debate. No matter how minor the character, their words have power.
Nevertheless, Chammah, who is a staff writer for the nonprofit news organization the Marshall Project, largely focuses on lawyers because they who “do most of the talking.” He invites readers into the courtroom, and like jury members we are vicariously tasked with assessing whether the punishment fits the crime. He asks us to listen to the reasoning of charismatic attorneys who present gruesome facts and persuasive (and sometimes dizzying) arguments. In the process, we are exposed to questions that go beyond the oversimplification of guilt or innocence: What does it mean to live in a just society? Can a person be truly evil? Is the justice system fair for all?
Texas is a prominent character in Chammah’s book, which takes its title from a biblical phrase with origins in The Crusades. Interwoven into the state’s character is a notion of toughness. Think leathery cowboy, spiting tobacco into a metal spittoon. Think hot-headed barroom brawls with deadly consequences. Chammah cites a persistent notion of “honor,” and how White Texans, in particular “believed themselves to be self-reliant in matters of law and order.” Defending one’s territory coincided, not surprisingly, with a deep attachment to firearms. Chammah writes, “The legal doctrine declaring that you had ‘‘no duty to retreat”—permitting murder with the thinnest justification of self-defense—was at one time known as “the Texas Rule.”
Because Furman v. Georgia stated that capital punishment was unconstitutional in current form, but not that it could never exist again, the Texas Legislature set out to rewrite the death penalty laws. In addition to making a list of crimes that would automatically yield the death penalty, (killing a police officer, killing a child etc.) legislators wrote three questions that would decide the defendant’s fate: “Was the murder unprovoked? Was it deliberate? And finally: Was there a “probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society?”
Language has consequences, and these questions skewed heavily towards prompting a jury to answer yes. Chammah states that “even decades later, the men who had agreed upon the three questions could not agree about their implications.” It was a bill put together under the pressure cooker of a short deadline. A decade later, one legislator admitted “I’m not sure we did that great a job.” Chammah writes “Of the roughly fifteen hundred executions that Americans have carried out since the 1970s, Texas has been responsible for more than five hundred.”
Nationwide, public opinion has had a direct influence on the increased number of executions. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, for example, left a deep mark on America after Timothy McVeigh detonated explosives that would take the lives of 168 people. Chammah notes “a surge in executions, from forty-five in 1996 to ninety-eight in 1999. By 2006, the rate at which judges reversed death sentences had fallen by 80 percent.”
Perhaps one of the most prominent achievements of this book is how it’s able to trace a clear line from slavery and lynchings to the death penalty. Again, Chammah folds in testimonies from lawyers, who have spent their entire careers working on the behalf of people on death row: Anthony Amsterdam, Rep. Craig Washington, Danalynn Recer. While their names might not ring a bell, their words in the courtroom are unforgettable.
When it seemed likely the Texas senate would get its bill, Craig Washington, a Black lawyer from Houston made one last plea: “Show me in this bill how all people will be treated equally. Show me how I can tell…that the color of a man’s skin will not have a consideration of whether he’s executed under this law.”
Readers remember the echo of this quote when we are reminded of how divisive rhetoric wins elections. Chammah mentions the case of the Central Park Five, a group of Black teenagers who were convicted of raping a White woman jogger in 1989. (They are now referred to as the Exonerated Five). Donald Trump immediately spent $85,000 placing full-page ads in multiple newspapers, demanding the return of the death penalty in New York. Chammah writes that, decades later, “when DNA eventually proved that these teenagers were innocent and they were released from prison, Trump said he didn’t believe it.”
Chammah continues: “Many conservatives had voted for Trump…because he promised to nominate conservative judges to the Supreme Court, and he delivered, nominating Neil Gorsuch and then…Brett Kavanaugh, both of whom tended to vote against death row prisoners.”
Republicans have long clung to the death penalty as means of securing loyalty from their base. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry presided over 234 executions by 2011. And after Jeff Sessions became U.S. attorney general in 2017, he urged states to carry out more.
Chammah points out that as early as the 90s, data showed glaring issues regarding how cases were tried. James Liebman, a Columbia law professor, found that “more than two-thirds of death penalty sentences featured a ‘serious reversible error.’” A statistic like this might cause readers to pause: if such flaws exist surrounding something as critical as capital punishment, a matter of life or death, then what other flaws pervade the criminal justice system?
Throughout the book, Austinites will discover details about their city that perhaps they did not know. The state capitol, the pink-domed jewel of downtown, was built with stones unearthed by the free labor of state prisoners. Sidestepped union workers called the building a “scab job.”
Stephen F. Austin, Austin’s namesake, “worried that someday black slaves might out number their white owners and take over; he had a particular fear of black men raping white women.” In nearby San Antonio, the rope formerly used for hangings “was repurposed to tow automobiles,” after the Texas legislature secured funds to build an electric chair in 1922. These details aren’t meant to overload the reader with facts but to expose the bloody seams of history and how racism continues to shape Texas today.
Chammah writes: “As we lean uncertainly toward ending the death penalty, we can look back at why we embraced it so thoroughly, and what might follow should we embrace it again.”
“Let the Lord Sort Them,” calls on readers to not only think about the death penalty but the criminal justice system as a whole. It’s no surprise then that this book has already gained praise and recognition; in 2019, it won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. More recently, The New York Times included it among the 13 Books to Watch For in January.
Chammah’s important book will likely spark conversations well into the new year