Off with their heads! The death penalty in literature

  1. Change of Heart
    1. Does the death penalty still do its job if the person you’re executing actually wants to die? In this Jodi Picoult novel, a man and his step-daughter are murdered and the guy who was doing building work in the family home is the prime suspect - Shay Bourne. He’s quickly arrested, given a trial and then sentenced to death. The murdered man’s wife, June, is still alive, as is their young daughter Claire. But Claire has a terminal heart condition and will die if she can’t get a new heart. When Shay discovers this, he says he wants to give her his heart when he’s executed - he thinks it will help redeem his wrongdoing. Obviously, June wants to accept and save her daughter’s life, but is execution still a punishment if it allows someone to do something good?
  2. Vernon God Little
    1. Do our feelings about the death penalty change when we realise how messed up the justice system can be? Through a series of misunderstandings, teenager Vernon Little ends up getting blamed for a school shooting which was actually the work of his best friend Jesus Navarro (who murdered a whole bunch of their classmates and then killed himself.) You might not think a book about a kid on death row could be funny, but here author DBC Pierre unpacks ideas about the death penalty in an interesting but lighthearted way. From false evidence and dodgy police officers to corrupt news reporters and lying witnesses, all the failings of the legal system are held up to the light. But will justice win out, or will the wrong person take the blame?
  3. The Crying Tree
    1. Could you ever forgive the person who murdered someone you love? This book by Naseem Rakha explores that idea through the eyes of Irene Stanley - a woman whose 15-year-old son is murdered. Overcome with grief, she tries to work through her pain by befriending the man who killed her son, as he spends 19 years in prison waiting for his death sentence to be carried out. Much to the surprise and horror of her family, she actually tries to stop his execution. But does forgiveness have a place in the justice system?
  4. The Green Mile
    1. What happens when you have to execute someone who you know is innocent? In this Stephen King novel, the story is told from the perspective of death row supervisor Paul Edgecombe. A huge black man called John Coffey is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two little white girls and is brought onto death row. As the two men get to know each other, Paul realises that John has supernatural abilities - he can heal people. And along the way, he also discovers that John is innocent - but Paul can’t prove it. Yet, John says he is actually relieved to be dying, as then he can escape from all the cruelty and suffering in the world. As the execution date draws near, Paul has to decide what to do - can he really help end the life of a man who’s done nothing wrong?
  5. Alice in Wonderland
    1. Is it ever ok to use the threat of death to control people? Lewis Carroll’s book tells us: “The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. 'Off with his head!' she said, without even looking round.” Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts is a passionate and hot-tempered ruler, quick to give death sentences at the slightest offence. But it seems that most people manage to escape beheading, as the King of Hearts quietly pardons them when the Queen isn’t looking. In fact, the Gryphon tells Alice, "It's all her fancy: she never executes nobody, you know." Although in many ways this book is an adventure story about a girl coming of age, it also explores how the threat of death is used to keep people in line - to instil fear in people and keep the Queen in her place of power. But is that staying true to the real purpose of the death penalty?