A Descending Spiral

Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays

Powerful, wry essays offering modern takes on a primitive practice, from one of our most widely read death penalty abolitionists

“The reality is that capital punishment in America is a lottery. It is a punishment that is shaped by the constraints of poverty, race, geography, and local politics.” —Bryan Stevenson

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg has noted, people who are well represented at trial rarely get the death penalty. But as Marc Bookman shows in a dozen brilliant essays, the problems with capital punishment run far deeper than just bad representation. Exploring prosecutorial misconduct, racist judges and jurors, drunken lawyering, and executing the innocent and the mentally ill, these essays demonstrate that precious few people on trial for their lives get the fair trial the Constitution demands.

Today, death penalty cases continue to capture the hearts, minds, and eblasts of progressives of all stripes—including the rich and famous (see Kim Kardashian’s advocacy)—but few people with firsthand knowledge of America’s “injustice system” have the literary chops to bring death penalty stories to life.

Enter Marc Bookman. With a voice that is both literary and journalistic, the veteran capital defense lawyer and seven-time Best American Essays “notable” author exposes the dark absurdities and fatal inanities that undermine the logic of the death penalty wherever it still exists. In essays that cover seemingly “ordinary” capital cases over the last thirty years, Bookman shows how violent crime brings out our worst human instincts—revenge, fear, retribution, and prejudice. Combining these emotions with the criminal legal system’s weaknesses—purposely ineffective, arbitrary, or widely infected with racism and misogyny—is a recipe for injustice.

Bookman has been charming and educating readers in the pages of The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Slate for years. His wit and wisdom are now collected and preserved in A Descending Spiral.


“In these remarkable essays, Bookman achieves a dispassion that is more incisive and compelling than any overt advocacy. His gift for exquisite irony and his spare, trenchant prose are the perfect tools for exposing the injustices of a legal system that kills haphazardly. Sharpest writing on the death penalty since Koestler and Camus.”
—Anthony Amsterdam, leading Supreme Court advocate against capital punishment, professor at New York University School of Law, and author
“Marc Bookman has been writing exquisitely about the cruelty and absurdity of our criminal justice system for years. In this moving series of essays, he weaves in the context and history of our barbaric capital punishment regime and the ways discrimination and bigotry have upheld the system that exists today. A devastating and illuminating book.”
—Josie Duffy Rice, president, The Appeal
“Essays from one of America’s most prominent death penalty abolitionists. . . . Bookman creates a clear, comprehensive portrait of a broken system, and the cases he highlights make for fascinating reading.”
Kirkus Reviews
“An absorbing, stirring work. . . . Readers interested in the death penalty and injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system, as well as those who enjoyed Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, will appreciate this title.”
Library Journal
“In twelve compelling essays . . . Bookman makes a clear and irrefutable case for the U.S. to join in banning a punishment relegated by so many other nations to the annals of the past.”
Rain Taxi
“Bookman’s essays eloquently condemn capital punishment in America. They expose the cruelty and injustice that it imposes on the soul of America and point us toward a healing for which our country yearns.”
—Alfre Woodard, actress, producer, and political activist
“As one of America’s premier capital defense attorneys, Bookman has dedicated his life to celebrating the humanity of those citizens we most want to forget. Here, he weaves an unflinching portrait of twelve cases that illustrate in painful detail why the death penalty remains one of the greatest stains on the moral fabric of our society. These essays will make your blood run cold.”
—Tony Goldwyn, actor, director, and producer
“With lucid prose and a firm grasp of history and legal precedent, Bookman makes a persuasive argument that these dozen cases are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to death penalty injustices. This is a cogent and harrowing primer on what’s wrong with capital punishment.”
Publishers Weekly
“In A Descending Spiral: Exposing the Death Penalty in 12 Essays, Marc Bookman provides such entertainment as he lays out the many ways the American judicial system fails to safeguard the rights of those accused of capital crimes.”
The Provincetown Independent
“No one covers the defects of our nation’s criminal justice system more forcefully or eloquently than Marc Bookman.”
—Robert Atwan, series editor of The Best American Essays

News and Reviews

Deceration Nation

Listen to an interview with author Marc Bookman on Deceration Nation.

Los Angeles Review of Books1

Read an interview with Marc Bookman in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the death penalty, our broken criminal justice system, and his new book.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of Marc Bookman’s A Descending Spiral in Publishers Weekly

Goodreads Reviews