The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty

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9780060174484: The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty

In fascinating detail, Ivan Solotaroff introduces us to men who carry out executions. Although the emphasis is on the personal lives of these men and of those they have to put to death, The Last Face You'll Ever See also addresses some of the deeper issues of the death penalty and connects the veiled, elusive figure of the executioner to the vast majority of Americans who have claimed to support executions since 1977. Why do we do it? Or, more exactly, why do we want to?

The Last Face You'll Ever See is not about the polarizing issues of the death penalty -- it is a firsthand report about the culture of executions: the executioners, the death-row inmates, and everyone involved in the act. An engrossing, unsettling, and provocative book, this work will forever affect anyone who reads it.

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Review:

Donald Hocutt mixed the sulfuric acid bath that dissolved the cyanide that killed Jimmy Lee Gray. It was the first time the gas chamber had been used at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary in 19 years, and it was the beginning of the end for the asphyxiation of death row prisoners. Gray's gruesome death shocked the nation and forced a move to lethal injections, but Hocutt acted as executioner for three more men before the switch. Journalist Ivan Solotaroff spent five years trying to understand the motive behind the death penalty by looking at executioners themselves, asking where and when and how, and the more difficult questions: Why do they do it and why do they want to do it? He interviewed men on death row, such as Wilbert Rideau and Douglas Dennis, editors of the acclaimed magazine The Angolite, who speak with remarkable eloquence, as well as witnesses to executions, such as Watt Espy, America's foremost historian of executions, who remarked, "I believe that more than one person dies with each execution." But most of those five years were spent with Hocutt and his one-time superior warden Donald Cabana. The two men had polar responses to their role as executioners--Hocutt, who used his violent disposition to control inmates, embraced his duty, while Cabana befriended the condemned to ease their passage--but both were ultimately broken by the ordeal.

Solotaroff creates an intimate picture of these men's lives while presenting an unflinching account of execution. His purpose is not to argue for or against the death penalty, but rather to question the real motive behind it: do Americans pursue the death penalty for deterrence or punishment, to rid a society of a blight, or is it "something altogether different--an expression of an irrational urge far more subterranean than the will to justice"? This is a finely written and humane examination of a rare breed of people and of an act clouded by a strange brew of sensationalism and obscurity. Solotaroff has grappled with the hardest questions--of vengeance and responsibility--and though he doesn't pretend to have found the answers, what he does reveal is thought-provoking and indelibly unsettling. --Lesley Reed

About the Author:

Ivan Solotaroff is a journalist who has been published in Esquire, the Village Voice, and Philadelphia Magazine, among other leading magazines. He is the author of a collection of essays, No Success Like Failure. He lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

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