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Book Review: ‘Let the Lord Sort Them,’ by Maurice Chammah

The chipping worked, in Texas and beyond. Chammah reports: “In 1994, Texas juries sent 43 people to death row. After 2014, that number never rose beyond 10, and in 2015 it dropped to two. In 2019, death rows around the country reached their smallest total population since 1992.” The death lives on, but it is not well (despite the recent spate of executions by the Trump administration).

Chammah intersperses this history with the stories of people who shaped and resisted these changes. We meet Craig Washington, a crusading Texas lawmaker who works to help his colleagues see that “the true history of the death penalty in his country, and his state, lay not in Revolutionary-era hangings, nor in a gauzy vision of the frontier, but in the horrors of Southern lynching” — and who ends up becoming a frustrated member of Congress, accused of corruption. We meet Elsa Alcala, orphaned as a girl, who rises through the ranks of the Texas justice system, first as a Republican prosecutor who ambivalently seeks and gets the death penalty, then as a judge who presides over a system she increasingly regards as unjust. We meet Danalynn Recer, a scrappy investigator turned lawyer who practices what she calls “bakesale justice,” chiseling away at an edifice of injustice with little but her own energy and righteousness, and succeeds.

Along the way, we learn frightening and funny and astonishing things about the justice system, and the death in particular. A warden presiding over an execution is using a cane, apparently because he was in a car accident that killed a person and he was facing drunken-driving charges — a paltry misdemeanor compared with the felony murder punishment he’s supervising. We learn that lawyers call death row inmates who kill themselves or stop appealing their executions “volunteers.” That the amount of sodium pentothal used in Texas’ lethal injections was — at least for a while — far more than needed because an official didn’t want to fill out paperwork explaining the wastage of part of a vial. That many inmates are afraid of false rumors of butt plugs on the gurney. That in small, sparsely peopled counties in Texas, officials sometimes have to raise taxes to pay for a death penalty trial. That Dallas prosecutors were told to avoid jurors with “physical afflictions” because of their tendency to sympathize with the accused. That one Texas district attorney rewarded a prosecutor who had landed a death sentence with a novelty pen resembling a syringe. That the Ellis Unit, which used to house death row in Texas, greeted visitors with a perplexing acronymic sign: “Everyone lives longer if safety is first.”

Throughout the book, such details stand out — and compensate for the fact that Chammah’s writing can be workmanlike and staid. At times, there are almost too many lines of fact to keep track of — too many minor characters whose names we must recall, too many sad death cases to keep straight. Sometimes you long for a through-line.

Then it hit me. The book’s form and its limitations underscore its barely explicit but unmistakable thesis: that change doesn’t happen because of singular heroes; that it isn’t elegant or linear; that it comes through the planting of many seeds, only a small number of which will sprout; that you never know precisely where you are in the process. In a way, the book is a tribute to legwork.

It also illustrates how change is sometimes made possible not by raising the stakes and notoriety of an issue but rather by pulling the poppy down so it doesn’t get mowed. Pick your issue: Medicare for all, immigration, a wealth tax. These days, once the national gaze falls on an issue, that issue is already polarized. The camps are sorted and no one will budge an inch.

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