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The Row : It’s almost peaceful in the corridors of Death Row, where the most violent crimes come down to years of paper-shuffling : AMONG THE LOWEST OF THE DEAD: The Culture of Death Row, <i> By David Von Drehle (Times Books: $25; 469 pp.)</i>

There is indeed a culture among the dead men walking on the Row. It has a language, a mixture of street slang and arcane vocabularies and mindless legal gibberish. It has rituals and routines: 23 hours a day locked down, one hour out, two showers a week, visitors once a month, maybe twice. Lights out at 11, breakfast at 5, “Soul Train” on Saturdays. There is a lot of television and radio, a few books, mail for some. It has its customs and lore, its characters and oddballs.

It is a culture of hopelessness, the recurring theme of David Von Drehle’s fine book “Among the Lowest of the Dead.” Hopeless, it seems, from the viewpoint of everyone in the death business.

First, there are the inmates, the condemned men who inhabit the Row. Virtually all are products of violent homes and many were beaten as children. Many more were used for sex. Most are repeat offenders with lengthy records. Some are mentally ill. All are losers. All are convicted murderers whose violence led them to the Row, a remarkably peaceful place where they live in 6-by-9-foot cells and sleep 12 hours a day.

David Von Drehle, arts editor of the Washington Post, limits his focus to Florida, but Death Row is much the same everywhere. The daily monotony of watching the walls tames even the most vicious of killers. Many, however, needed no such taming: They are presented here as merely simple people who did stupid things.

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The culture of hopelessness also engulfs the victims, of course: the families who’ve seen their children and loved ones murdered. Just when Von Drehle softens you with well-reasoned arguments as to why the death penalty should be abolished, he slaps you in the face with a sickening reminder of why people are sent to the Row.

Some of their crimes almost defy description. The rape and strangulation of a little girl is enough to make you say, “Let me pull the switch.” The unthinkable anguish of her parents lingers long after the book is finished. Their little girl was 10 when she died. Her 25th birthday just passed, and her killer still sits on Death Row.

Last year 22,000 Americans were murdered, but interestingly for a nation in love with the death penalty, fewer than a hundred murderers were executed. Each inhabitant of the Row has about a 5% chance of being executed in a given year. The victims wait. They join support groups and watch politicians get themselves elected by promising more gassings and lethal injections.

The culture of the dead also breeds hopelessness for the court and the lawyers. We’re sick of violent crime, so our juries deliver more death penalty verdicts. The trials are long and arduous. The appeals take a decade. There are now 3,000 people on Death Row, and the reviews of their cases clog an already overburdened system.

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It is here, in the machinations of the legal process, that Von Drehle spends most of his time. He first became interested in the death penalty while covering it for the Miami Herald in the 1980s, and here, he manages a small miracle by taking a dry and dense body of law--death penalty legislation and its subsequent application and review--and making it compulsively readable. This he does by vividly evoking the lives of the players: the defense lawyers who work around the clock to save the condemned; the lawyers for the state who fight tooth and nail to carry out the death warrants; the advocates on both sides, including the book’s most memorable character, Scharlette Holdman, the lowly paid director of the Florida Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice, a dignified name for a shoestring outfit.

It falls to Holdman and her staff of none to find lawyers willing to donate hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to defend death row inmates. She works around the clock seven days a week, consuming cup after cup of coffee and pack after pack of cigarettes, talking endlessly on the phone with lawyers reluctant to get involved. She never takes vacations, never shops or goes to movies, seldom sleeps without nightmares. She is obsessed with her mission to save lives.

Her mission is hopeless. More death sentences mean more clients in need of help, and there are fewer and fewer lawyers willing to volunteer for such difficult litigation.

Von Drehle touches briefly on the standard arguments in favor of the death penalty--deterrence, revenge, retribution, etc.--but dispatches these with little trouble. He is far more effective when examining an element most taxpayers misunderstand. It is not, contrary to popular belief, cheaper to kill an inmate than to house one for the remainder of his natural life. The average successful death case lasts 10 years, involves many lawyers and judges, and is horrendously expensive. It costs less than half as much to keep the prisoner alive.

And there’s no hope that Death Row can be managed more cheaply. The Constitution requires certain safeguards for inmates on the Row. Lawyers must be employed to guarantee these safeguards. Lawyers are expensive. Florida, along with many other states, has learned the painful lesson that the quickest route to an execution is by ensuring quality legal representation for the condemned. A sloppy trial guarantees extensive appeals. Haphazard appellate work will keep a killer alive for decades. Thus, if a state is serious about its death penalty, it’s wise to invest in skilled lawyers. But when was the last time you heard a candidate for political office advocate hiring more lawyers to defend Death Row inmates?

Von Drehle begins with the 1979 execution of John Spenkelink, a worthless drifter who murdered another worthless drifter in a cheap motel room. He ends with the 1989 execution of Ted Bundy, perhaps the most famous killer put to death in recent times. The Spenkelink execution was a fluke. Bundy’s was ramrodded and welcomed by almost everyone. Both prove the hopelessness of the culture of the dead.

Before his trial, Spenkelink declined an offer to plead guilty to second degree murder. The decision cost him his life. When he was strapped into Old Sparky, he was far from being the most vicious killer on Florida’s Death Row. His crime paled in comparison to dozens of others. In fact, there were many inmates in the Florida system who’d killed in far more heinous ways than Spenkelink, and they weren’t even on Death Row. They were in the general prison population, serving their time and waiting for parole. But Spenkelink just happened to have the “nearest dying” appeal when Florida decided to implement its new capital punishment law. He hadn’t been the on the Row the longest; in fact, he was far from it. Spenkelink happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He should not have been executed.

Bundy was a serial killer whose crimes were legendary. He raped and murdered dozens of children and adult women from coast to coast, and when he was convicted in 1979 for the killings of two sorority sisters at Florida State, a determined effort was made to get him to the electric chair. After losing at trial, Bundy’s case lumbered along through the courts with all possible speed. It leapfrogged over 50 others. But it still took 9 1/2 years!

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As convicted killers and Death Rows inmates, John Spenkelink and Ted Bundy had little in common. One committed a hasty act that mighty have been in self-defense. The other was a coldblooded serial killer. One missed the chance of pleading guilty to a lesser charge and walking free after a few years. The other met a fate that was too easy. Their paths crossed at the stake, but it is impossible to reconcile their deaths. Which killers do we kill? And who decides?

It is because of questions like these that the Row’s culture of hopelessness extends not only to criminals, lawyers and crime victims, but to all of us. Suggesting that the problem is rooted not only in the sins of the prisoners but in the sins of our culture--the violent books, movies, music, games, schools and subways that help make our murder rate 13 times higher than that of England--Von Drehle concludes that “violent crime is a rot on the structure of American society.”

Still, while Von Drehle is an obvious foe of the death penalty, his own positions are generally unobtrusive. The strength of “Among the Lowest of the Dead” comes from old-fashioned storytelling--Von Drehle gathers a host of truly interesting people and allows them to talk to the reader. Good stories are about unforgettable people, and Von Drehle’s cast lingers in the mind for a long time.


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