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You’ll remember Mark Fuhrman from such media frenzies as O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder.  You may also recognize him more readily as the author of a series of sensationalist true-crime novels, but I recently read his book on the death penalty in Oklahoma.  My interest in the book began as practical research for a novel in which the main character is an inmate on Oklahoma’s death row.  It bloomed into a rather lengthy and intense look at my own attitudes toward the death penalty.

In Kansas, the death penalty gets very little play in the media for the simple reason that the state has not executed anyone since the death penalty was declared constitutional again in 1976.  There are nine men on death row in the state, so there is a chance albeit slim that we’ll eventually see our first execution in more than thirty years.

This only strikes me as odd when I consider the proximity of Kansas to Oklahoma, third in executions, behind Texas and Virginia.  Growing up just a few miles from the border between the two states, the difference between the two was indiscernible, and not only because the landscape is uninterrupted.  Yet attitudes toward the death penalty are sharply different.  Even my staunch Republican Kansas relatives are hesitant to militate for more capital convictions or more executions.

Fuhrman’s book, Death and Justice, gets at some of the elements in that difference.  He’s not a lyrical writer by any stretch, but he manages to hint at the way the line between justice and revenge goes grey in Oklahoma politics and society.  It helps that throughout the book he acknowledges his own biases about the death penalty.  If you read much about the way the death penalty is administered in this country, perhaps it won’t surprise you that Mr. Fuhrman experiences a shift in his understanding as he tours Unit H in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Fuhrman goes into the bermed facility convinced that the death penalty can be administered justly, that it serves a valuable purpose, but he leaves shaken.  After considering the conditions the inmates are kept in (Unit H has the dubious distinction of being the only underground death row in America), the judicial routes by which many of the inmates reached that point, and the prolonged waits for execution, his certainty erodes.  He leaves McAlester convinced that the death penalty is a mistake.  The book is a simple but eloquent statement on the dangers of our current system of incarceration and execution.

Flaws in the judicial system cast doubt on guilt and highlight discrimination, and as Fuhrman realizes, even if all the inmates on Unit H are assuredly guilty, they are being punished twice.  As the faulty system struggles to validate convictions, it forces inmates to serve out a prison sentence while they wade through the appeals process.  In some cases, the inmates may serve ten, fifteen, twenty years or more before they are executed.

At the root of it, as Fuhrman’s own shifting attitudes suggest, is America’s ambivalence about the death penalty.  Supporters are quick to proclaim that they have faith in the system and in the rightness of the sentence, but only the most hardline supporters would agree to radically shortening the appeals process.  Most Americans accept the lengthy appeals process as a hedge against something they know is suspect, both morally and judicially.  We have frequently expressed anxieties about executing the innocent, but more deep-seated are our anxieties about executing the guilty.

If we truly had any faith in capital punishment, we would execute the convicted in short order, without consideration for whether the technique is humane.  That we don’t do this is proof we are trying to back away from the very act itself.

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Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount is one of those small books I pick up at the library, thinking, “I’ll take this to my dentist appointment and toss it off in the waiting room.”

I was wrong.  I lingered over it and read it twice before I returned it to the library.  The book is written in the sort of spare prose I admire so much and find so rarely.  It’s narrator is Charley, an 11-year old human, who serves as the mount for his little alien master, Future-Ruler-of-Us-All.  (Yes, it’s one of those spec fic stories, where aliens have taken over earth and enslaved humans.)

Where other stories of this type fail, The Mount convinces utterly with its immersion in the world it creates.  Part of that immersion is Emshwiller’s keen eye for subtle details.  As her mount protagonist observers, “We prefer pats.  Hoots prefer strokes.”  (The aliens are known as Hoots for the sound they make.)  That one detail stayed with me and left me observing people for weeks to confirm it was true.  Of course, humans stroke each other, but the essential communication of care, concern and friendship in human interactions is a pat.  On the hand, the arm, the back.  And so the Hoots use pats to indicate approval and care for their trusty steads.

Emshwiller’s descriptions of humans as mounts made me watch the treadmill traffic at the gym more closely.  Some people were clearly never designed to be mounts–too much bouncing and jostling.  Others are clean lines and elegant motion.  In The Mount, the hoots classify two distinct types of humans: Tennessee and Seattle.  The Tennessees are lither, quicker, more suited to carrying messages, while the Seattles are sturdier, more sedate, suited to carrying hoots on their shoulders over long distances.  There is one runner at the gym who will always be a Seattle in my mind.  He’s solidly built and he runs long laps around the track at a steady pace, but never sprints.  More importantly, he runs as though gliding.  As he passes me on each lap (I’ve always been a walker), I marvel that his shoulders are broad and perfectly level.  They don’t dip or jerk, and I often imagine a hoot perched on him, enjoying that velvety ride.

The book is both a pleasure to read and an important lesson for writers.  The details that make or break a fantasy world or an alternate history are all subtle and deeply imbedded in the story.

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