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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

December 02, 1990|Alex Raksin

LAST RIGHTS: 13 Fatal Encounters with the State's Justice by Joseph B. Ingle (Abingdon Press: $21.95; 300 pp.) and UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD: The Book of Executions in America by Frederick Drimmer (Citadel Press: $19.95; 320 pp.) . Two radically different histories of the death penalty, that punishment distinguishing the United States from Western Europe and Scandinavia, but not from Iraq, Iran and South Africa. Counseling prisoners on Death Row since 1974, Joseph Ingle, a minister, has become so disturbed by the penalty's arbitrariness (blacks who kill are 22 times more likely to get the sentence than whites) and vengefulness (its deterrent value remains unproven) that he spends more time preaching Jesus' principles than describing his prisoners' sentencing or crimes. The prisoners he does profile, however, are stunningly different from the evil hobgoblins so often portrayed in the media. Morris Masson, for instance, the paranoid schizophrenic man-child with an IQ of 66, enters the chamber playfully and brightly asks, "What does it mean to die . . . Does it mean I get to order anything I want for breakfast?"

Frederick Drimmer, in contrast, seldom strays from the moral low ground. Offensively titled chapters (e.g., "Old Sparky") introduce obsessively detailed accounts of electrocutions gone awry since 1890, producing everything from bloody faces to singed hair. Many Americans, accustomed to the quick and seldom dirty death scenes of TV, might benefit from Drimmer's reminder that killing is a grisly business. But one searches in vain for a probing account of tragedy, finding only the lurid depiction of spectacle.

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