Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review - The Autobiography of an Execution - David Dow and The Confession - John Grisham

Title:      The Autobiography of an Execution 
Author:  David Dow

Title:      The Confession
Author:   John Grisham

Review:  After about 15 pages into John Grisham’s book I realized that these were in fact the same book; or at least two versions of the same story.  David Dow is a death penalty lawyer in Texas, and The Autobiography of an Execution details his most egregious case.  It is one of the few times he was absolutely convinced his client was innocent of all the charges, but a combination of some extremely bad police work, heavily biased court system, and some really malicious  mistakes his client was put to death.  As with any analysis of past events you can have some doubts as to whether Dow’s opinion is to be trusted, but he makes a pretty good case for it.  Couple that with the admission that he has tried a lot of cases but this is the one that stands out (i.e. he doesn’t foolishly believe all his clients are innocent).

Now if Dow was presenting a “hammer of truth” to the reader, Grisham picks it up and proceeds to beat the hell out of you with it.  Grisham takes the basic skeleton of the case and then layers on a thick layer of motivations on the top.  So at the end of the book there can be no doubt to the innocence of the accused.  It would be quite persuasive if I hadn’t already read the Dow book.  As entertainment I think while very preachy, it rates as one of Grisham’s better books.  That is because his passion for the cause bleeds through every page.

At the end of the day I think Dow put it best when he said you are either for the death penalty or against it.  You cannot pick and chose when you want (I am paraphrasing here).  The message of the two books is there are a lot of variables involved in getting a person off the street and into the death chamber.  Each and everyone of those variables are subject to human error and biases which can lead to mistakes being made.   A belief that if you’re innocent that the truth will eventually come out and you will be alright is extremely naive and misguided.  So at the end of the day you have to ask yourself if you are okay living with the occasional mistake and an innocent person being executed.

It is easy for me as a well situated, married, gainfully employed, white male to look at these case from a distance and say yes, it is alright for the occasional person to be executed so all the guilty are too.  That is because the chances that I will ever be in that situation are so remote that it is a non-issue.  Most of us are probably in the same boat and thus can be indifferent.  But try to imagine the circumstance and you are awaiting lethal injection for a crime you didn’t commit;; are you now okay sacrificing your life so the real bad guys can be executed too?  I am left with Dow’s position after reading these books, I can’t support the murder of the innocent in order to execute the guilty.

The most interesting point made by Dow was the fact it is more expensive to execute a prisoner than to just house them indefinitely in prison.  That is one of those facts you do not hear about too often.

So read Dow if you want the gritty details and doubt, but read Grisham if you want the preachy but far more entertaining story.

Publisher:  Twelve Publishing.  Publisher:  DoubleDay
Copyright: 2010 both books
Pages:  257 pages.   Pages:  418 pages
ISBN:  9780446573948 ISBN:  978-0-385-52804-7

Quick Review:  Both books 4 stars (though I preferred the Dow book – it was more to my taste)

Why I Read it:  The Dow book caught my eye as I scanned the new nonfiction shelf at my library.  As for Grisham, I always read all of his books as soon as I can.  He occasionally falls flat, but for the most part he tells a great story.

Where I Obtained the Book:  At my local library

Synopsis:  The Autobiography of an Execution:  A candid look at the inner workings of our flawed criminal justice system, Dow s book is filled with searing revelations. A Houston-based death row attorney, Dow has represented more than 100 death-row inmates in his 20-year career navigating the convoluted judicial waters. Most often, his quest is to earn his clients a stay, sometimes just minutes before their scheduled execution. Aware that many of his clients are murderers, Dow also believes that some are innocent and sit on death row because they didn t receive the fair trial our government promised. Once a supporter of the death penalty, Dow now opposes it.

Many pages are devoted to describing Dow s round-the-clock efforts to save a particular inmate whose original trial lawyer was too lazy to build a proper defense. A man with a strong moral code, Dow works desperately to be a loving husband and father, too, but his work invades his home life in subtle ways, provoking nightmares and insomnia. Regardless of which end of the political spectrum you re on, after reading this spellbinding work, you ll never look at the death penalty the same way again.

Defending the innocent is easy. David Dow fights for the questionable. He is tormented, but relentless, and takes us inside his struggle with candor and insight, shudders and all. Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.

Synopsis:  The Confession:   John Grisham delivers his most extraordinary legal thriller yet. Filled with the intriguing twists and turns that have become Grisham’s trademark, this newest novel will prove once again that no one keeps readers in suspense like America’s favorite storyteller. An innocent man is days from execution. Only a guilty man can save him.

For every innocent man sent to prison, there is a guilty one left on the outside. He doesn’t understand how the police and prosecutors got the wrong man, and he certainly doesn’t care. He just can’t believe his good luck. Time passes and he realizes that the mistake will not be corrected: the authorities believe in their case and are determined to get a conviction. He may even watch the trial of the person wrongly accused of his crime. He is relieved when the verdict is guilty. He laughs when the police and prosecutors congratulate themselves. He is content to allow an innocent person to go to prison, to serve hard time, even to be executed.

Travis Boyette is such a man. In 1998, in the small East Texas city of Sloan, he abducted, raped, and strangled a popular high school cheerleader. He buried her body so that it would never be found, then watched in amazement as police and prosecutors arrested and convicted Donté Drumm, a local football star, and marched him off to death row.

Now nine years have passed. Travis has just been paroled in Kansas for a different crime; Donté is four days away from his execution. Travis suffers from an inoperable brain tumor. For the first time in his miserable life, he decides to do what’s right and confess.

But how can a guilty man convince lawyers?

Author Biography:  David Dow:  Biography: David R. Dow is professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center and an internationally recognized figure in the fight against the death penalty. He is the founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network and has represented more than thirty death row inmates. Regularly quoted in publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, Dow is coeditor of Machinery of Death: The Reality of America's Death Penalty Regime. He lives in Houston, Texas.

Author Biography:  John Grisham:  Born on February 8, 1955 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, to a construction worker and a homemaker, John Grisham as a child dreamed of being a professional baseball player. Realizing he didn't have the right stuff for a pro career, he shifted gears and majored in accounting at Mississippi State University. After graduating from law school at Ole Miss in 1981, he went on to practice law for nearly a decade in Southaven, specializing in criminal defense and personal injury litigation. In 1983, he was elected to the state House of Representatives and served until 1990.

One day at the DeSoto County courthouse, Grisham overheard the harrowing testimony of a twelve-year-old rape victim and was inspired to start a novel exploring what would have happened if the girl's father had murdered her assailants. Getting up at 5 a.m. every day to get in several hours of writing time before heading off to work, Grisham spent three years on A Time to Kill and finished it in 1987. Initially rejected by many publishers, it was eventually bought by Wynwood Press, who gave it a modest 5,000 copy printing and published it in June 1988.

That might have put an end to Grisham's hobby. However, he had already begun his next book, and it would quickly turn that hobby into a new full-time career—and spark one of publishing's greatest success stories. The day after Grisham completed A Time to Kill, he began work on another novel, the story of a hotshot young attorney lured to an apparently perfect law firm that was not what it appeared. When he sold the film rights to The Firm to Paramount Pictures for $600,000, Grisham suddenly became a hot property among publishers, and book rights were bought by Doubleday. Spending 47 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, The Firm became the bestselling novel of 1991.

Grisham lives with his wife Renee and their two children Ty and Shea. The family splits their time between their Victorian home on a farm in Mississippi and a plantation near Charlottesville, VA.

Other Reviews:  The Autobiography of an Execution:

Other Reviews:  The Confession:  


  1. Sounds like a very interesting book. While I'm not against the death penalty in theory (some people just "need killin'") I am against the way it's done in the US.

    Great review.

  2. I'm a big fan of John Grisham's writing style, and The Confession was the first e-book I purchased for my new Kindle. Like his previous novels, The Confession is a smooth read; I finished it in just over a day. Grisham has a knack for interspersing engaging dialogue and narrative, and he knows how to end a chapter leaving you with a desire to read the next.


Disclaimer for all reviews sent by the publisher, publicist or author for review.