In 1972, the United States Supreme Court made a surprising ruling: the country’s death penalty system violated the Constitution. The backlash was swift, especially in Texas, where executions were considered part of the cultural fabric, and a dark history of lynching was masked by gauzy visions of a tough-on-crime frontier. When executions resumed, Texas quickly became the nationwide leader in carrying out the punishment. Then, amid a larger wave of criminal justice reform, came the death penalty’s decline, a trend so durable that even in Texas the punishment appears again close to extinction.
In Let the Lord Sort Them, Maurice Chammah charts the rise and fall of capital punishment through the eyes of those it touched. We meet Elsa Alcala, the orphaned daughter of a Mexican American family who found her calling as a prosecutor in the nation’s death penalty capital, before becoming a judge on the state’s highest court. We meet Danalynn Recer, a lawyer who became obsessively devoted to unearthing the life stories of men who committed terrible crimes, and fought for mercy in courtrooms across the state. We meet death row prisoners—many of them once-famous figures like Henry Lee Lucas, Gary Graham, and Karla Faye Tucker—along with their families and the families of their victims. And we meet the executioners, who struggle openly with what society has asked them to do. In tracing these interconnected lives against the rise of mass incarceration in Texas and the country as a whole, Chammah explores what the persistence of the death penalty tells us about forgiveness and retribution, fairness and justice, history and myth.
Written with intimacy and grace, Let the Lord Sort Them is the definitive portrait of a particularly American institution.