New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
Drawing on never-before-published original source detail, the epic story of two of the most consequential, and largely forgotten, moments in Supreme Court history.
For two hundred years, the constitutionality of capital punishment had been axiomatic. But in 1962, Justice Arthur Goldberg and his clerk Alan Dershowitz dared to suggest otherwise, launching an underfunded band of civil rights attorneys on a quixotic crusade. In 1972, in a most unlikely victory, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia’s death penalty law in Furman v. Georgia. Though the decision had sharply divided the justices, nearly everyone, including the justices themselves, believed Furman would mean the end of executions in America.
Instead, states responded with a swift and decisive showing of support for capital punishment. As anxiety about crime rose and public approval of the Supreme Court declined, the stage was set in 1976 for Gregg v. Georgia, in which the Court dramatically reversed direction.
A Wild Justice is an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the Court, the justices, and the political complexities of one of the most racially charged and morally vexing issues of our time.
It takes a gifted writer to craft a thriller out of the efforts to have capital punishment declared unconstitutional, but Mandery pulls it off in this intellectual page-turner. Without sacrificing detail, the capital attorney and criminal justice professor at John Jay College pulls back the curtain on the horse-trading that led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Georgia's death-penalty statute in 1972, and then change its collective mind just four years later. The prologue traces the background of the 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, as, in 1963, liberal Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg posed the question to his law clerk, "What could be more cruel than the deliberate decision by the state to take a human life?" Goldberg's goal was to force the Supreme Court of Alabama to hand over for review a decision involving a rapist sentenced to death, in the hopes that it would prompt a discussion of the constitutionality of capital punishment. A lack of support even from those justices who were sympathetic to Goldberg's memorandum doomed his efforts, but it paved the way for a valiant battle waged by the lawyers of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The lawyers prevailed in the short term, but public backlash against the decisions of an increasingly unpopular Supreme Court led to the reversal of Furman in 1976's Gregg v. Georgia leaving Mandery to indulge in some fascinating counterfactual history in his concluding section. 8 pages of photos.