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The Row : It's almost peaceful in the corridors of Death Row, where the most violent crimes come down to years of paper-shuffling : AMONG THE LOWEST OF THE DEAD: The Culture of Death Row, By David Von Drehle (Times Books: $25; 469 pp.)

March 26, 1995|John Grisham | John Grisham's last novel, "The Chamber," was about a young lawyer who volunteers to represent a killer on Death Row. His new book, "The Rainmaker," will go on sale next month (both are published by Doubleday). He is a lawyer and publisher of the Mississippi Oxford American, a quarterly literary magazine

There is indeed a culture among the dead men walking on the Row. It has a language, a mixture of street slang and arcane vocabularies and mindless legal gibberish. It has rituals and routines: 23 hours a day locked down, one hour out, two showers a week, visitors once a month, maybe twice. Lights out at 11, breakfast at 5, "Soul Train" on Saturdays. There is a lot of television and radio, a few books, mail for some. It has its customs and lore, its characters and oddballs.

It is a culture of hopelessness, the recurring theme of David Von Drehle's fine book "Among the Lowest of the Dead." Hopeless, it seems, from the viewpoint of everyone in the death business.

First, there are the inmates, the condemned men who inhabit the Row. Virtually all are products of violent homes and many were beaten as children. Many more were used for sex. Most are repeat offenders with lengthy records. Some are mentally ill. All are losers. All are convicted murderers whose violence led them to the Row, a remarkably peaceful place where they live in 6-by-9-foot cells and sleep 12 hours a day.

David Von Drehle, arts editor of the Washington Post, limits his focus to Florida, but Death Row is much the same everywhere. The daily monotony of watching the walls tames even the most vicious of killers. Many, however, needed no such taming: They are presented here as merely simple people who did stupid things.

The culture of hopelessness also engulfs the victims, of course: the families who've seen their children and loved ones murdered. Just when Von Drehle softens you with well-reasoned arguments as to why the death penalty should be abolished, he slaps you in the face with a sickening reminder of why people are sent to the Row.

Some of their crimes almost defy description. The rape and strangulation of a little girl is enough to make you say, "Let me pull the switch." The unthinkable anguish of her parents lingers long after the book is finished. Their little girl was 10 when she died. Her 25th birthday just passed, and her killer still sits on Death Row.

Last year 22,000 Americans were murdered, but interestingly for a nation in love with the death penalty, fewer than a hundred murderers were executed. Each inhabitant of the Row has about a 5% chance of being executed in a given year. The victims wait. They join support groups and watch politicians get themselves elected by promising more gassings and lethal injections.

The culture of the dead also breeds hopelessness for the court and the lawyers. We're sick of violent crime, so our juries deliver more death penalty verdicts. The trials are long and arduous. The appeals take a decade. There are now 3,000 people on Death Row, and the reviews of their cases clog an already overburdened system.

It is here, in the machinations of the legal process, that Von Drehle spends most of his time. He first became interested in the death penalty while covering it for the Miami Herald in the 1980s, and here, he manages a small miracle by taking a dry and dense body of law--death penalty legislation and its subsequent application and review--and making it compulsively readable. This he does by vividly evoking the lives of the players: the defense lawyers who work around the clock to save the condemned; the lawyers for the state who fight tooth and nail to carry out the death warrants; the advocates on both sides, including the book's most memorable character, Scharlette Holdman, the lowly paid director of the Florida Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice, a dignified name for a shoestring outfit.

It falls to Holdman and her staff of none to find lawyers willing to donate hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to defend death row inmates. She works around the clock seven days a week, consuming cup after cup of coffee and pack after pack of cigarettes, talking endlessly on the phone with lawyers reluctant to get involved. She never takes vacations, never shops or goes to movies, seldom sleeps without nightmares. She is obsessed with her mission to save lives.

Her mission is hopeless. More death sentences mean more clients in need of help, and there are fewer and fewer lawyers willing to volunteer for such difficult litigation.

Von Drehle touches briefly on the standard arguments in favor of the death penalty--deterrence, revenge, retribution, etc.--but dispatches these with little trouble. He is far more effective when examining an element most taxpayers misunderstand. It is not, contrary to popular belief, cheaper to kill an inmate than to house one for the remainder of his natural life. The average successful death case lasts 10 years, involves many lawyers and judges, and is horrendously expensive. It costs less than half as much to keep the prisoner alive.

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