Volume 71, Number 3

June 1996

Reading Death Sentences: The Narrative Construction of Capital Punishment

Christopher J. Meade

What is it about the death penalty that causes so many Americans to express support, despite the contradictions underlying this support? And since utilitarian and moral arguments have proven to be ineffective, how can those who oppose capital punishment most effectively fight against it?

This Note addresses these questions by analyzing narratives about the death penalty, focusing on films that are based on true-life stories. Since these true-life narratives recount actual occurrences, they provide examples of how reality is shaped into narratives. Narrative is one of the primary ways in which people make sense of the world, and as Robert Cover notes, “[n]o set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning.” As such, these popular culture narratives help illuminate the role that the death penalty plays in America. In addition, they offer insights into how death penalty opponents can use narrative to erode capital punishment’s high but unstable support. Analyzing how a particular narrative tells the story of an actual defendant may therefore provide insight for those who tell real-life stories to juries, to commutation boards, and to the media.