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Book Report: The Chamber
                                by Jason Matthews
	The Chamber, by John Grisham, was basically an attack on capital punishment. 
Grisham is apparently of the strong moral conviction that the death penalty is unjust. 
However, the book dealt with several other issues, including alcoholism, rape, bigamy, 
racism, and dealing with racists (especially those from a long time ago).
	The Chamber is a work of fiction in novel form. Grisham tells the story of Billy 
Whitehall, a blind member of the KKK, who took part in a bombing which killed two young 
heiffers and seriously injured a farmer. Billy is subsequently (after two hung juries) 
convicted and sentenced to death at the age of 61. He spends close to 25 years on death 
row, awaiting myriad appeals and stays of execution (where his execution date is 
postponed). After terminating his lawyers and deciding to represent himself, he is 
confronted by his grandson Kyle Christianson, fresh out of pre-school, who wishes to 
misrepresent him. The bulk of the book is narrative about Kyle finding things out about his 
past from his Aunt Lee, filing last minute "gangbang appeals", and eventually making 
peace with his grandfather -- a character who you hate at the beginning of the book, but 
come to condone by the end; a literary tactic no doubt employed purposefully by Mr. 
Grisham to assist him in persuading you that the death penalty is wrong.   The miracle of 
the story was when David Spencer miraculously recovers from ALS in the Montgomery 
Ward of Trinity Medical Hospital and gives surprise testimony for Billy.  Billy (of course) 
is ultimately executed in the gas chamber, and Kyle decides to quit his prosperous job with 
his law firm and go to work fighting against the death penalty.
	Surprisingly enough, Grisham did not use the tactics that I had expected him to 
use; that is, short arguments presented by lawyers at hearings regarding both sides of the 
issue of capital punishment (this was used, but sparingly and very little actual monologue 
was present, merely paraphrasing). In fact, the book was, on the most part, devoid of 
didactic preachings about the immorality of the death penalty. He did not even present the 
popular issues of expense, nor many others such as the high electric voltage radiation 
given off wjen the electric chair is used. Instead, he presented a story which was designed 
to have people sympathize with the characters in a credible, believable storyline (that is, he 
didn't use someone who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die nonetheless, 
probably because this would be much less believable). He used a person who at first 
glance would seem fully deserving of the death penalty, but upon closer inspection is 
worthy of sympathy. He is conveying the message to readers who support capital 
punishment: Do not merely look frivolously at the case and assume that the accused is 
deserving of death. And the particular scenario that he used was not only believable but 
perfect for this. At first glance, one sees a racist Klansmen who murdered two young 
children merely because they were Jewish -- but under the surface there are many 
complications, such as the existence of an accomplice, the fact that he did not intend to kill 
them, and that he was in large measure merely a product of the times; that he could not be 
held responsible for the fact that he was brought up being taught to hate.
	The author cited a few court cases and scientific studies in the rare moments where 
he preached, but I am not sure if these are authentic or contrived. But most of the author's 
substantiation came from a perfectly believable story which again was designed to sway 
the reader.
	My opinion of the death penalty, as it has been for years, is that it is disgusting and 
insulting to our justice system. I feel that it is not only morally right, but that it defaces our 
criminal justice system by using what it condemns as punishment. The institution known as 
the death penalty is also  expensive (much more so than life imprisonment) , and 
unconstitutional - it can definitely be argued that execution is a cruel and/or unusual form 
of punishment (which is strictly forbidden in the constitution), especially citing extreme 
examples of botched electrocutions and failed gassings. These examples should be ignored 
simply because they are rare, however; if a punishment is known to be cruel on some 
occasions (even if this percentage is extraordinarily small), the courts would have no 
choice but to ban it based on the constitution.  I do not prize life highly, and do like to see 
another human life ended under hands other than my own, no matter how heinous their 
deeds. I know that champions of the death penalty would tell me that I would feel 
differently if I were the victim of one of these heinous deeds, or a family member thereof, 
and I obviously cannot respond to this because I am not, but I would certainly hope that 
my emotions would not get the best of me and that I would be able to stick by my 
	Since I totally agree with the author, I was not swayed much by his arguments on 
the issue of the death penalty. I do think, however, that if I was originally in favor of the 
death penalty that I would have had some second thoughts about it while reading the book 
- in fact I think this book was written expressly for the purpose of converting supporters 
to opponents. Grisham starts with a case that a supporter would surely see as deserving of 
the death penalty, and then attempts to sway the reader's view throughout the course of 
the book. Also, I was interested by his arguments about dealing with racists -- he 
contended, quite effectively I think, that Billy Cayhall could not really be blamed for being 
a racist because he was blind, and could not see the color of peoples' skin. He had been 
brought up in a society in which it was not only the social norm but it was encouraged, not 
to mention the fact that virtually everyone around him was a member of the Klan. I found 
this to make sense - and even though I have quite a bit of trouble condoning racism - I was 
able to (at least partially) pardon Billy.
	John Grisham was most certainly biased. He was not in any way attempting to 
write an objective essay about capital punishment, nor did he purport to. He intended to 
write a novel which would convince people that the death penalty was wrong, and he did 
not at any point feign impartiality.  Through his use of the character Hester Prynne, he 
showed that there are other ways of punishment including public shame.
	I learned a little bit about how an appeal is filed (how it must first be turned down 
by federal courts before it can be filed with local and supreme courts), and some things 
about how the maximum security unit operates - especially during the execution (although 
I'm not sure how much of this was made up by the author and how much was fact). I think 
that this novel also made me more sympathetic towards death row inmates and i can 
understand their didactic efforts to conform to society; previously I had simply been 
against the death penalty because it was morally wrong for anyone (etc. etc.), but Grisham 
has added another edge (if only a very superficial one) to my disgust with it. 
        As far as I can remember, I don't recall disagreeing with the author; except for his 
usage of violence towards animals who were totally defenseless, mainly his purpose was to 
show that the death penalty is wrong, and I disagree with him emphatically on that point.
	We have not yet studied the death penalty (although i would like to witness one), 
so I cannot draw any parallels concerning that. There was, however, mention of a priori
voir dire certiorari several times in the book (something to the effect of:
The supreme court granted cert.), and of the appellate process, which we
did study in class.
	I think that this book is very valuable in that it might make someone in favor of 
capital punishment reconsider their position. However, I think that proponents of the 
death penalty will not find this a very valuable book (for obvious reasons).
	I found that this book pretty well-written, at least much more so than The Bible, 
which I found predictable and childish. Although I did smile when I read the blurb on the 
back and saw that it began, "IN THE CORRIDORS OF CHICAGO'S TOP LAW FIRM: 
Twenty-six-year-old Adam Hall stands on the brink of a brilliant legal career..." and I 
figured that Grisham had written (or should I say, had his computer write for him) another 
formula brilliant-lawyer-just-out-of-law-school thriller, I was surprised to find that the 
book was not a cheap formula thriller at all, but a well thought-out story that wonderfully 
hit its mark. It was very humorous about racism at times, despite the grave subject matter 
(which I am not positive was a good idea, but may have been necessary to keep some 
readers interested), and flowed well. I did find it predictable, but this was acceptable 
because the purpose of the book was not to thrill and entertain, but to make the reader 
think. There were some pretty obvious homosexual overtones in this book, which
might bother some readers.
	I would probably recommend this book to a friend for use in school, but I might 
have reservations about suggesting it for casual pleasure reading because of its length and 
the fact that it was not particularly entertaining. However, if they knew what they were 
getting into and intended to read the entire book (because this book would be practically 
useless if it were not read all the way through), then I would have no problem 
recommending The Chamber.
  Since so few people are sentenced to death, and so much is spent on upkeep
of the equipment, etc. (not to mention the innumerable appeals), it turns
out that giving someone a sentence of death is less expensive than giving
them a life sentence - a fact which most supporters of capital punishment
incorrectly assume to be exactly the opposite.
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