PROXIMITY TO DEATH

By William S. McFeely

Norton. 206 pp. $23.95

On a Monday in September four years ago, William S. McFeely, professor of history at the University of Georgia, received a telephone call from an Atlanta lawyer named Stephen Bright. He was representing a "convicted kidnapper, rapist and murderer," Carzell Moore, whose pre-sentencing-trial hearing was scheduled a few days later. Bright asked if McFeely would be willing to testify, as an expert in Southern history, on aspects of that history, which Bright hoped would persuade the court not to impose the death penalty.

McFeely went to the courtroom in the small town of Sparta, and testified about the intimidation of blacks in the South generally and Georgia specifically. In essence what he said boiled down to this: "Since the region is the South--though any other would qualify as well--and Moore is a black man, there is a likelihood that racial prejudice played a role somewhere along his route to death row." The case remains unresolved to this day, what with retrials and appeals and the usual creaky workings of the law, and McFeely's involvement with the issues it raises has not ended, either.

Inspired by what he saw in that courtroom and by the example of Bright, McFeely immersed himself in a couple of other cases pursued by the Southern Center for Human Rights, where Bright is "first among equals of these less than a dozen lawyers whose work is keeping their clients alive." Motivated by a passionate opposition to the death penalty, the center's lawyers "are determined to keep each of their clients from the ultimate expression of violence, the state killing its own people."

The book that has emerged from this inquiry, "Proximity to Death," is "not a treatise on the legal intricacies of death penalty law" but "an account of a historian who suddenly found himself pulled out of history and into the reality of the law taking a person's life," as well as "a story of a few people living in one corner of the country who carry a large responsibility."

So McFeely claims. But in fact, after his brief description in the opening pages of his appearance at the hearing in Sparta, McFeely vanishes as a character in the story. Yes, the first-person singular is employed frequently, but it is as a witness to events--a reporter, if you will--rather than as a participant in them. Rather than a personal story, "Proximity to Death" is a hagiographic depiction of Bright and his allies and a statement in opposition to the death penalty marked more, as the saying has it, by heat than by light.

American attitudes toward the death penalty, as McFeely notes, are odd and anomalous. While much of the rest of the world has rejected it, the United States not merely has reestablished it but has also done so in some states, most notably and notoriously Texas, with a vengeance. "Why," McFeely asks, "are we so enamored of the death penalty? Shouldn't it have gone the way of witch trials and slavery?" He cites Donald D. Matthews, a historian of American religion, as rejecting the received wisdom that the death penalty is "a legacy of frontier justice" and arguing that "Americans [respond] to the concept of a wrathful God and death as a means of atonement."

In truth probably both explanations have something to do with it, as well as Americans' attitudes and fears about race. This is hardly limited to the South, but McFeely is correct to say that race figures especially large there, for reasons that require no elaboration. Though it may be an exaggeration to say, as McFeely does, that "nowhere has the civil rights movement made less of a difference than in the criminal justice system," it is true that justice in America is far from blind where race is concerned and that in the rural, small-town South it often exerts a disproportionately large influence.

Yet in the case upon which McFeely focuses most of his attention, the role of race is more complex than he admits. William Brooks, a black man, was convicted of the rape and murder of a young white woman, an accusation he does not deny. The issue in his case, therefore, has not been the crime but his punishment for it. At his sentencing trial, where the Southern Center for Human Rights represented him, Booth was given life imprisonment rather than the death sentence by a jury of four whites and eight blacks. Apparently most of the black jurors were determined from the outset to impose the more lenient sentence, leaving one to ask how, exactly, did race figure in this case?

The point is that, though he has written some greatly admired works of history and biography, McFeely tends to view social, cultural and legal questions through the prism of race. He takes a different angle from that used by those with whom he disagrees, but it is still a biased slant. His heart may be in the right place, but it doesn't always steer his head in the right direction.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.