Ultimate Punishment, by Scott Turow

Capital insights of a death-row attorney
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The Independent Culture

On 25 October 1994, Chris Thomas and two friends waited for Rafael Gasgonia to finish his shift at a photographic shop in a town just outside Chicago. The gang, all career criminals, planned to rob the Filipino immigrant. They jumped him and Thomas put a gun to his head. Seconds later he pulled the trigger, killing the shop assistant instantly. The men were all arrested.

The state of Illinois retains the death penalty. Thomas was put on trial for capital murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Did he deserve to die? The answer depends on whether you believe that, in the worst murder cases, the state has the right to kill its citizens.

In Britain, it is easy to feel self-righteous about the death penalty, as we abandoned it in 1965. Yet violent crime is much more commonplace in the US, with a murder rate is four times that of western Europe. Scott Turow, a Chicago lawyer and the author of bestselling crime novels, has spent a large part of his career grappling with the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. His experiences as a young prosecutor and a death-row defence attorney have given him a unique insight into how the death penalty works in America.

Chris Thomas was one of his clients. In Ultimate Punishment, Turow uses the case to expose some of the shortcomings of capital punishment in US. Turow argues that Thomas's should never have been a capital case because the gang had intended to rob and not kill. But the Illinois prosecutors categorised the Gasgonia killing as an execution-style shooting.

Even so, had Thomas pleaded guilty at an early stage, he might have been spared a death sentence. But, in the face of damning evidence, he refused to admit his guilt. This so infuriated the judge that, for the first time in his judicial career, he imposed capital punishment. Thomas's prospects looked bleak.

Turow and his team began digging into Thomas's background and discovered he had been raised in a Chicago crack house by his 15-year-old mother, who later abandoned him. As a boy he was abused by those who came to buy drugs; he had been locked in a car with attack dogs, and dropped on his head from a garage roof as a gang reprisal against his mother. As his background began to emerge, Thomas seemed a far less deserving case for a death penalty. In 1999 the State Attorney conceded that execution was not an appropriate punishment and settled on a sentence of 100 years' imprisonment.

In 2000, after other questionable capital cases, Turow was asked to sit on an Illinois commission to investigate the death penalty and recommend reforms. Throughout Ultimate Punishment, he carefully reprises many of the commission's arguments. Although one always suspects Turow must be against the death penalty, he cleverly deploys the suspense of his fiction to raise doubts about his true position until the very last page.