How long these death throes drag on is largely a question of how stubborn the U.S. Supreme Court will be about ignoring its own rulings. In 1972, the court struck down all existing death penalty laws as unconstitutional because the penalty was rarely imposed and the selection of the unlucky prisoners was, in the apt imagery of one justice, as arbitrary as being struck by lightning.
True then, true now.
State legislatures are growing tired of waiting. New Hampshire abolished its long-unused death penalty in 2019. Colorado followed suit last year. By all indications, Virginia will erase its death penalty this month: Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has promised to sign an abolition bill that has passed the state Senate and is nearly through the House.
Virginia! According to records compiled by the researcher M. Watt Espy, supplemented by the excellent work of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Virginia has executed more people in its history than any other state. For a time in the 1990s, you couldn’t find a place more enthusiastic about capital punishment. According to the DPIC, when Virginia goes, the death penalty will be dead in a majority of states, whether by legislative action, state court order or executive refusal to continue shoveling money down the rathole.
A number of other states keep the law on their books but haven’t executed anyone in a decade or longer.
Many foes of the death penalty believe it survives only on racism, but I think it’s that plus something more. Revulsion is deeply wired; it is natural to feel that certain crimes are so far beyond the pale that only a terminal punishment is equal to the offense. But decades of experience from coast to coast have proved that applying that impulse consistently to the endlessly messy particulars of actual life is not practical. The Old Testament says an eye for an eye, but even God, sifting the details of the first murder, let Cain off on a technicality.
This essential fact of capital punishment — the fatal gulf between the letter of the law and the chaos of the world — is the subtext of a brilliant new book, “Two Truths and a Lie” by Ellen McGarrahan. As a young reporter in 1990, McGarrahan volunteered to witness the execution of Jesse Tafero, convicted murderer of two law enforcement officers in South Florida. What she saw — an electric chair malfunction that set the prisoner’s head on fire — changed her life.
That gruesome killing also set in motion a reexamination of Tafero’s case, in which responsibility for the crime was unevenly distributed among three adults in one suspect car: The driver served time and went free; Tafero’s wife went to prison; and Tafero was burned alive. Ultimately, the wife also walked — fully exonerated, in the opinion of her supporters.
Now an accomplished private investigator, McGarrahan was haunted by her morning in the death house at Florida State Prison. Years passed without dimming those nagging memories, and she grew determined to find the truth of the events that brought her to that place. As her spellbinding memoir makes plain, when Ellen McGarrahan is determined to find something, there is no stopping her.
A search that begins at a Florida rest stop early one morning in 1976 ultimately spans years and crosses oceans, bumps up against a jewel thief, a movie star, a religious cult and the Irish Republican Army. Along the way, the author sinks into the queasy obsession that is familiar to anyone who has ever delved into the heart of darkness and found it to be not a substance but an emptiness; a room whose occupant has vanished; a deserted sidewalk that passes a shadowed doorway where someone, or something, might be lurking.
To summarize her conclusions would spoil the experience of reading a book that is among the truest of true crime stories ever written. But if the author comes full circle in her understanding, what matters is the fullness of the circle itself. McGarrahan’s story renders the tawdriness and banality of crime, the frustrating limits of witnesses and evidence, the hazy frontier between truth and lies, the slipperiness of culpability. This is capital punishment as it looks and feels on the inside — a tattered, dirty curtain over the inexpressibly sad and stupid fact of violence.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.