Kiss of Death:
America’s Love Affair with the Death Penalty

John D. Bessler
Northeastern University Press, 2003
189 p.


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Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: The Manhunt
Chapter 2: In Cold Blood
Chapter 3: Violence
Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship
Chapter 5: The Machinery of Death
Chapter 6: Men in Black
Notes / Index

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Few issues provoke such intense feelings and strongly held views as does capital punishment. In this text, John D. Bessler skillfully interweaves the powerful life stories of death row prisoners, his own experiences as a pro-bono attorney on death penalty cases in Texas, and historical perspective to persuade the reader that state-sanctioned executions must be abolished in the US.

Bessler’s compelling, well-crafted narrative asks if capital punishment has less to do with crime control and more to do with vengeance and swift retribution—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The author argues convincingly that the death penalty is just another form of violence in an already too-violent society. He contends that sentencing capital offenders to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is the best way to meet the needs of public safety while breaking the self-destructive cycle of violence.

Placing the nation’s complex, ever-changing relationship with capital punishment within legal, cultural, and historical contexts, Bessler dispels myths about the death penalty. He addresses racial discrimination in capital cases, wrongful convictions, the prominent role of guns in American life and in homicides, the issue of deterrence versus brutalization, the impact of executions on corrections officers and others in the criminal justice system, and the worldwide movement toward abolition. Also included is a call for televised executions as a means of exposing the reality of capital punishment to the public.

Kiss of Death brings a fresh yet reasoned approach to an emotionally charged and highly contentious debate. It shows why people should care—in fact, be outraged—that government-sponsored killings are still taking place today.


>> Criminal Justice Review: “Strengths of the book include the detailed explanations of the crimes and the author’s strong arguments, grounded in fundamental fairness, about why capital punishment should be abolished. Bessler is also good at exploring common myths surrounding the death penalty.”

>> Law & Politics Book Review: “Bessler paints portraits of those sentenced to die to show that they, too, are victims—of violence, mental illness, isolation. He wants his reader to see the condemned as individual human beings, to understand them—even those who have committed horrible crimes….His passion about violence in American society and the death penalty’s role in that violence come across effectively.”

>> Library Journal: “In this small, well-crafted volume, Bessler presents a no-holds-barred argument against capital punishment mixed with stories of death row inmates in Texas….Most of his arguments are familiar to death penalty opponents. What sets his book apart is Bessler’s style and personal intensity. Whereas other writers use statistics and cold facts, Bessler quotes passages from literature and tells poignant stories from his own experiences as a pro bono lawyer for death row inmates in Texas. Bessler makes no concessions to the opposing viewpoint, and his fervent outrage may even sway some people who are not already convinced.”