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No Choirboy by Susan Kuklin

August 22, 2008

On May 28, 2002, Napoleon Beazley was executed by the state of Texas. He was the 19th person executed in the United States for crimes committed as a juvenile since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Not until March 2005, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons (No. 03-633), did it become unconstitutional to execute offenders who were under the age of eighteen when their crimes had been committed.

“The jury came back ten against two in favor of life without parole. The judge overruled it and sentenced me to death.” – Roy Burgess Jr.

The title of Susan Kuklin‘s No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row and the description on the book jacket are a bit misleading since only two of the men who speak were actually sentenced to death. But I think this actually works in favor of the book, since it  gives voice to people, besides the convicts, who have also been affected by the legality of the death penalty.

No Choirboy includes few statistics, and you won’t find dry arguments debating the pros and cons of the issue, either. Instead, there are six chapters, each told by people whose lives were changed forever as a result of murder and the death penalty. Roy Burgess Jr. was sixteen and Nanon Williams seventeen when they were arrested for the murders they were ultimately convicted of, convictions that resulted in them both spending years on death row. At age fourteen, Mark Melvin killed a man. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole. Napoleon Beazley’s mother and younger brother discuss his life, and their lives after he was executed. William Jenkins was sixteen when he was murdered, his brother was thirteen and his sister, ten. The family requested that the prosecutor not ask the jury trying William’s killer for the death penalty. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, teaching law and fighting the death penalty.

“He was executed three days after I graduated high school. I went to my graduation. I was a zombie. I can’t remember nothing about the graduation. I don’t even know what I did with the diploma. I can’t remember who was there. I can’t even remember who gave me a graduation gift. I was a walking zombie.” – Jamaal Beazley

As you’d expect from a book about capital punishment, No Choirboy is an intense, powerful read. All of the first person accounts are honest, sometimes brutally so. While a few of the subjects are limited in what they are able to say about the murders that led to the death sentences for legal reasons, they don’t hide their shortcomings or mistakes when it comes to other topics. A few photographs and images, either taken by Kuklin or provided by the folks she interviewed, are interspersed through every chapter, adding to the immediacy of the first-person accounts and making them seem even more personal.

There is a definite anti-death penalty slant that runs throughout the book, giving it a cohesion that might otherwise be lacking in a collection of first-person accounts. However, even though I’m personally opposed to the death penalty, I think it would have been interesting to also get the perspective of a death penalty supporter, one who had lost a loved one to murder, with the murderer still on death row or already executed. But No Choirboy is still worth reading, a thoughtful look at the death penalty that hits home in ways that mere statistics can’t. And if you’re a death penalty opponent to begin with, you should definitely check this book out.

See Susan Kuklin’s thoughts about the creation of the book at Non-Fiction Matters (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and an additional response) and Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. For more information on juveniles and the death penalty, visit the Death Penalty Information Center.

Also reviewed at Oops…Wrong Cookie.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Awesome permalink
    December 14, 2009 3:50 pm

    When I was 17, I knew it was wrong to steal and kill. I surely didn’t go around thinking I was untouchable by the law because I was under 18.

    • December 14, 2009 6:28 pm

      I certainly wouldn’t argue that being a minor when a person (allegedly) committed a crime makes them untouchable. In fact, one of the subjects in No Choirboy does say that he deserves punishment for what he did.

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