Capital Crimes

13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penaltyby Mario Marazziti

Seven Stories Press. 240p $18.95

Thanks to Isadore Nikunge, I can attest to the power of international perspective when it comes to troubling moral issues.


In the early 1960s, Isadore was a foreign exchange student at Fordham University. He had come from Kenya (the actual Kenyan nation, not the State of Hawaii). Our family, living two blocks west of Fordham, befriended him.

At the time, folks like Malcolm X were bluntly decrying abuse by the New York Police Department, whose uniform my father wore. Law enforcement is surely no less tribal than any other profession, so my father tended to disregard these complaints. Wasn’t he himself fair on his Tremont Avenue beat? But then Isadore questioned him about the things he would observe and hear as a young black foreigner. My father stepped back and saw things a bit more honestly.

Would be it that the United States could do the same with our death penalty. Don’t blame Mario Marazziti that we have not.

Marazziti is an Italian journalist, activist and legislator. He serves as spokesperson for the Catholic center-left Community of Sant’Egidio and in 2002 co-founded the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Apart from the big names, including St. John Paul II, Helen Prejean, C.S.J., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Marazziti has done as much as anyone to move and amplify international opinion against the death penalty. This book describes his journey and carries on his effort to separate the United States from nations like North Korea, China, Iran and India, which also kill prisoners.

Marazziti explores the death penalty from well more than 13 angles. At the outset, he startles the reader with a bare eight pages of (superficially) random dates and statistics. (Average number of days between sentencing and execution as of 2012: 5,757. Longest incarceration before DNA exoneration: 35 years.) After that, he strikes out in all directions and at varying altitudes.

Marazziti notes practices of classical antiquity and surveys the views of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. He considers criminal justice trends, the eclipse of execution-as-spectacle and racism’s persistent toxicity.

At his best, Marazziti tells stories. With a generous heart, he illuminates the personal struggles of players on different sides of the death game, each a kind of victim. He also reports from the heady realm of international human rights diplomacy, where deals are brokered and tactics stubbornly debated.

One potent chapter centers on Curtis McCarty. Convicted of rape and murder, McCarty spent 22 years in prison, 19 of them on Oklahoma’s death row, before DNA testing set him free. Marazziti lets McCarty speak for himself. McCarty describes a death row designed to end a human existence long before execution. Its deprivations, physical and psychological, bespeak sadism at least as much as security.

More striking, McCarty reflects back on his ordeal with preternatural insight. Marazziti asks: “Would you give up the things you learned on death row in exchange for never having been there?” McCarty says no. Given his execrable choices in life before conviction, prison was inevitable. More, the experience brought him wisdom. “I do not hate. Anyone. If I did I would still be a prisoner.”

If McCarty’s story lifts up, Marazziti’s account of a 2007 episode at the United Nations disheartens, despite a happy ending. After years of disagreement between those who sought a call for abolition and those who saw a moratorium on executions as more attainable, the realists prevailed. Sights settled on passage of a moratorium resolution by the U.N. General Assembly. Organizations like Amnesty International, Penal Reform International and Hands Off Cain put differences aside. Sponsorship by diverse member nations would blunt the charge of European “neocolonialism,” a charge that had contributed to past failures.

Things looked good. Then Egypt introduced an amendment linking the elimination of execution and the elimination of abortion. Its attachment to the resolution would have driven away votes from member nations lethally wedded to abortion rights.

Marazziti, himself a disciple of the seamless garment approach, reports that the Vatican, though lacking a vote, brought to bear its unique pro-life authority. With help from the Philippines, it shut down Egypt’s gambit. The killer amendment had no chance to kill; the resolution passed with 102 yea votes.

But what bloodlust fuels an attempt to perpetuate executions by cynically pitting the unborn against the condemned?

Marazziti’s multifaceted approach could have yielded a hodgepodge. But he has pulled off a mosaic—or better, a kaleidoscope. Each shift in focus is enriched by what has gone before.

So dig into this fine, often powerful book. But do not expect an instant downturn in our death penalty’s 61 percent approval rating. Way too many Americans are closed to their Isadore moment.

For them, foreigners have nothing to teach our country: Europe’s universal health care is a fast lane on the road to serfdom. The French are all the more damnable for being tragically right in 2003 about Iraq. And, as suggested by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York in The Wall Street Journal, Peter’s Argentine successor, who decried “trickle-down” economics, simply could not have been criticizing U.S. capitalism. American exceptionalism, indeed.

No, this book will not be the rescue ship for our nation’s whole death row. Still, it may prove a serviceable life preserver for a few of its inmates.

A central infirmity of the death penalty lies in its haphazard imposition. That same unpredictability permits the possibility that 13 Ways—having fallen into the hands of the right prosecutor, judge, governor or legislator—will arouse shame in a ripe conscience.

If 13 Ways causes even one inmate to be spared, be certain Mario Marazziti will join us in prayers of thanksgiving for the inmate and for the rest of us.

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