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Evolving Standards of Decency

Popular Culture and Capital Punishment

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Mary Welek Atwell

The Supreme Court has looked to «evolving standards of decency» in determining whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Evolving Standards of Decency examines the ways in which popular culture portrays the death penalty. By analyzing literature and film, Atwell argues that capital punishment becomes much more complex when both offenders and victims are presented as fully developed individuals.
Numerous books and films from the last several decades expose flaws in the criminal justice system and provide audiences with stories that raise questions about race, class, and actual innocence in the administration of the ultimate punishment. Although most people will not read legal briefs supporting or challenging the death penalty, many will see films or read novels that raise issues about its fairness. Themes and images gathered through popular culture may ultimately influence whether Americans continue to believe that capital punishment conforms to their evolving standards of decency and justice.
Those studying justice issues, corrections, or capital punishment will find this an accessible and provocative work that places the stories read in novels or seen in movies in the context of the legal system that has the power of life and death.