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Web deck: MERCY ON TRIAL What It Means to Stop an Execution By Austin Sarat Princeton University Press/$29.95 Austin Sarat’s scrutiny of the rare practice governors possess to stop executions is thought-provoking. But the Amherst College professor’s book is weighed down by his inability to quit lecturing and just tell a story. “Mercy on Trial” is at its best when Sarat retells and dissects the controversial 2003 decision by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute 167 sentences in one fell swoop. Likewise, his vignettes of previous governors who took stands against the death penalty in one way or another are engaging and enlightening. And he offers a context that was largely missing from most news accounts at the time. Is it wise to give governors � or anyone else � such an absolute and discretionary power as executive clemency? By telling stories of clemency granted by other state governors, like Oklahoma’s Lee Cruce, New Mexico’s Toney Anaya and even California’s Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Sarat shows there was some build-up to Ryan’s actions. But at the same time, he notes the differences in the political climate surrounding each governor, and contrasts the justifications they offered. Outside of these narratives, though, Sarat’s book often reads like a term paper. He devotes nearly four pages at the outset to saying what points he plans to make in each chapter that follows. Each of those sections is thoroughly researched and, with some patience, enlightening. Unfortunately, Sarat’s points often get bogged down in his sometimes stilted language � count how many times Sarat uses the oxymoronic catchphrase “lawful lawlessness” � and among the near-constant quotes from myriad commentators. While the direct quotes are always relevant, their sheer number makes it a chore to follow Sarat’s train of thought. Had he more often conveyed his research in his own words, his book would still be chock full of information, but more seamless in the telling. The bottom line is the difference, for about half the book, between reading a magazine and reading a textbook. But if you’re OK with that, “Mercy on Trial” will prod you to reflect on an aspect of the U.S. legal system that has been around so long it’s rarely questioned. And that’s reason enough to pick it up. Pam Smith is a reporter with The Recorder.

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