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God have mercy on your soul



The Culture of Death Row

By David Von Drehle

Times Books, $25

Reviewed by Gregory Enns

From the cramped, fetid cells of Florida's death row to the cavernous, musty halls of justice, David Von Drehle in Among the Lowest of the Dead vividly chronicles Florida's application of the death penalty in the modern era.

He presents a history and analysis of the death penalty in Florida, and his gifted and insightful prose overcomes the boredom normally associated with such a dreary topic.

In just a few short sentences, Von Drehle describes the life of the death row inmate. In his small cell, called a house, the prisoner "spends an average of twenty-three hours a day inside, knows every hairline crack and rusty paint chip. If this is a winter morning, it is very cold on death row; if it is summer it is very hot. It stinks the same, regardless of the season, the air thick with the odor of smoking, sweating, dirty, defecating men."

What marked the return of death row and why is Florida a leader in the field?

Florida in 1976 became the first state to implement a death penalty that passed constitutional muster since the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision Furman vs. Georgia, which struck down death penalties in nearly 40 separate jurisdictions. The Florida Legislature's idea of weighing mitigating and aggravating circumstances in determing which murderers should be executed became a model for other states.

As the death penalty in Florida hit the fast track, a young ambitious politician named Bob Graham was driving the train. Only months before signing John Spenkelink's death warrant, Graham was a little-known state senator with a liberal record.

Von Drehle, a former reporter for the Miami Herald and now an editor at the Washington Post, pays tribute to Graham's "protean genius for discerning the public's wishes, and his capacity to shape himself to their desires."

When Graham's administration got off to an indecisive start, advisers grew convinced that the governor needed a show of strength. After meticulous attention to laying the death penalty groundwork, Graham signed his first death warrants, for Spenkelink and Willie Darden. Darden's execution on that warrant was stayed, paving the way for Spenkelink, who had confessed to killing a fellow transient in a Tallahassee motel room, to become the first person involuntarily executed since the Furman decision. He was executed May 25, 1979.

In his first four years as governor, Graham signed 45 death warrants. One poll taken before the 1982 election showed Graham received higher ratings for his handling of the death penalty than for anything else.

More than any other issue, the death penalty had steeled Graham from criticism as a liberal. Now a U.S. senator, Graham arguably remains Florida's most popular politician.

In addition to the political popularity of the death penalty, Von Drehle addresses other issues:

Cost. A 1988 study by the Miami Herald showed that Florida spent $57-million on a death penalty system that had executed 18 men at an average cost of $3.2-million per execution.

Race. Juries are considerably more inclined to recommend the death penalty for black defendants than for white defendants.

Chance of error. Between 1970 and 1993, 48 people were released from America's death houses, with strong showings of innocence, according to one study.

Effectiveness. About 3,000 prisoners sit on death row across the nation today, but only 1 percent each year eventually will sit in the electric chair or gas chamber, or get a lethal injection. Appeals can keep inmates on death row for decades, prolonging the agonies of both families of the victims and the convicted.

Uneven application. Von Drehle argues that the discretion judges have in leveling it makes uniformity in applying it virtually impossible.

In describing life on death row, Von Drehle gives out the inmates' recipe for "buck" _ a home-brewed concoction of fermented orange juice, sugar and bread, for yeast. If the brew ferments long enough successfully concealed from guards, an inmate can drink it to catch a buzz while watching Sunday afternoon football games. Televisions, Von Drehle writes, are "electronic tranquilizers."

The reader also finds out how an executioner is hired. Recounting Spenkelink's execution, Von Drehle writes of the man who tripped the switch: "His identity was painstakingly concealed: He was picked up on a lonely road and driven to the prison by a circuitous back route; his $150 fee was paid in cash so no record would appear on any checking account."

If Von Drehle has left something out of his 469-page book, it is a treatment of the moral and ethical issues that accompany society's use of the death penalty.

The author never openly comes out against the death penalty, but he attacks the "bubblegum patches" holding it together. Those patches most recently came apart June 15, when Gov. Lawton Chiles stayed his own death warrant of Joe "Crazy Joe" Spaziano to review the statements from the case's only witness that the testimony that sent Spaziano to death row 20 years ago was untrue.

Whether for or against the death penalty, the reader will come to realize how precarious its future is.

Even longtime supporters of capital punishment _ including former Supreme Court Justices Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell _ have concluded that the death penalty is a failure. In March, Justice John Paul Stevens called for a review of death penalty laws, saying they inflict "cruel and unusual punishment" on prisoners who languish on death row for years.

"Would a perfect death penalty _ predictable and swift _ serve us better?" Von Drehle asks, and then answers himself, "As Florida and all other death penalty states have shown, perfection eludes our grasp."

Gregory Enns is a Times staffer.