The best books on capital punishment

Many authors have picked their favorite books about capital punishment and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

Truth Machine

By James Halperin,

Book cover of Truth Machine

By the early twentieth century, violent crime was the number one political issue in America. In response, Congress passed the Swift and Sure Anti-Crime Bill, which gave a previously convicted violent criminal one fair trail, one quick appeal, then immediate execution. But to prevent abuse of the law, it was necessary to create a machine that could detect lies with one-hundred percent accuracy. It was clear that such a Truth Machine would change the world. But the race to perfect the Truth Machine forces one man to commit a shocking act of treachery. Now he must conceal the truth from his own creation---or face execution.

The conflict here is truth versus justice, as is often the case in human affairs. I was extremely interested in seeing how the author would balance these two seemingly irreconcilable factors. The book does a startingly job in resolving this conflict, in the process creating…

Who am I?

I've spent the last half-century researching complex systems and mathematical modeling, both at research centers including The RAND Corporation, the Santa Fe Institute, and the Int'l Center for Applied Systems Analysis (Vienna), as well with professorships at New York University, Princeton and the Technical U. of Vienna. I have also had a lifelong interest in the connection between science fiction and science fact, and have explored the relationship in several of my books including X-EVENTS, The Cambridge Quintet, and Paradigms Lost. I also served as editor for the volume Mission to Abisko, which gives an account of a week-long meeting between sci-fi writers and scientists held north of the Arctic Circle in Abisko, Sweden some years back.

I wrote...

Prey for Me: A Psychological Thriller

By John L. Casti,

Book cover of Prey for Me: A Psychological Thriller

What is my book about?

Who wins and who loses when you're playing with other people's money... and their emotions? World-renowned scientist Victor Safir can't resist his inexplicable attraction to Alex Lynne, a brilliant, beautiful financier-but his addiction to her may drive him over the edge. Thrust together as unlikely partners in the high-stakes world of London finance, their game of seduction might prove riskier than any business deal.

The Executioner's Song

By Norman Mailer,

Book cover of The Executioner's Song

I read Mailer’s book about the Utah killer Gary Gilmore upon its publication in 1979 when it earned a Pulitzer Prize. When I came to write my first book, I held The Executioner’s Song in mind as a high standard to aspire to. Mailer shows that it is possible to render a sordid murder case into a work of literature that is true to the facts, and revealing, but has the descriptive and dramatic qualities of fiction.

Who am I?

The author of biographies, histories, and true crime books, Howard Sounes is best-known for Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, now in an updated edition; Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life; and Fred & Rose, the bestselling story of married English serial killers Fred and Rose West. Other books include Amy, 27, Seventies, Heist, and biographies of Paul McCartney and Lou Reed.

I wrote...

This Woman: Myra Hindley’s Prison Love Affair and Escape Attempt

By Howard Sounes,

Book cover of This Woman: Myra Hindley’s Prison Love Affair and Escape Attempt

What is my book about?

In 1973, Myra Hindley, the most notorious woman in Britain, is serving a life sentence for the Moors murders, in which she and her boyfriend killed five children and teenagers. It was a case that shocked the world. Behind bars she has fallen in love. When Hindley is refused parole, she persuades a sympathetic prison officer and former nun to help her break out of London's Holloway prison. Revealing the 'most wicked woman in Britain' in a new light, This Woman is an atmospheric prison story and a love story that will make readers think again about the woman behind the Moors murders.

A Time for Mercy

By John Grisham,

Book cover of A Time for Mercy: A Jake Brigance Novel

If there is an heir to Harper Lee in the realm of legal thrillers, my vote goes to John Grisham. There’s a basic sense of decency in Grisham’s books that appeals to me. In A Time for Mercy, Grisham’s enduring character Jake Brigance returns to Clanton, Mississippi in a story constructed around a polarizing small-town murder. However, precious little can be categorized along strictly black and white lines in this crime. Grisham understands that we live in a world where the grays of reality are predominant and inherently more interesting. He makes sure we understand the characters, even those we may dislike or disagree with. Grisham doesn’t take the easy way out in A Time for Mercy. The story unfolds to a surprisingly untidy yet satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader with plenty of food for thought.

Who am I?

I’m a Canadian thriller and suspense novelist with an abiding affinity for stories of good ultimately overcoming evil. I’m partial to reluctant heroes battling powerful entities that are inflicting injustice. If our protagonist is flawed and forced to overcome internal demons and/or challenges, so much the better! My Tony Valenti thrillers feature a mom-and-pop law firm known as Lawyers to Little People and Lost Causes, so I know a thing or two about this type of book. Characters using brains, integrity, and bravery—moral and/or physical—fascinate me every time.

I wrote...

A House on Liberty Street

By Neil Turner,

Book cover of A House on Liberty Street

What is my book about?

​Meet Tony Valenti. His high-flying corporate law career just cratered. His society marriage blew up in a bitter divorce. He’s returned to the Chicago suburbs to lick his wounds and regroup in the haven of the Valenti family home. 

Tony’s elderly father inexplicably shoots a sheriff’s deputy on their front porch. Nobody knows why, and Papa isn’t talking. Then their house becomes an unlikely target for condemnation and expropriation by corrupt local officials and their cronies. Tony steps up to defend his father and take on city hall. He quickly finds himself in peril when he unearths sinister connections between the two cases. The audacity of the plot against his parents fuels a gritty determination to get to the bottom of what really happened. 

Education for Thinking

By Deanna Kuhn,

Book cover of Education for Thinking

Two skills fundamental to scientific reasoning are inquiry and argument. Inquiry is generating new information, and argument is using that information to justify and evaluate knowledge claims. Kuhn presents a framework for understanding these processes, as well as methods for teaching them. Her insights are grounded in science-education research demonstrating not only why inquiry and argument are challenging but also how they can be improved. Kuhn’s book fundamentally changed how I teach science to others. It provided me a way of organizing and motivating the various research methods I cover in my courses, as tools for building a collective body of knowledge.

Who am I?

I’m a professor of psychology at Occidental College, where I direct the Thinking Lab. I hold degrees in psychology from Princeton and Harvard and have published several dozen scholarly articles on conceptual development and conceptual change. I’m interested in how people acquire new concepts and form new beliefs, especially within the domains of science and religion. My research investigates intuitions that guide our everyday understanding of the natural world and strategies for improving that understanding.

I wrote...

Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories about the World Are So Often Wrong

By Andrew Shtulman,

Book cover of Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories about the World Are So Often Wrong

What is my book about?

Why do we catch colds? What causes seasons to change? And if you fire a bullet from a gun and drop one from your hand, which bullet hits the ground first? In a pinch we almost always get these questions wrong. Worse, we regularly misconstrue fundamental qualities of the world around us. In Scienceblind, I show that the root of our misconceptions lies in the theories about the world we develop as children. They’re not only wrong; they close our minds to ideas inconsistent with them, making us unable to learn science later in life. So how do we get the world right? We must dismantle our intuitive theories and rebuild our knowledge from its foundations. The reward won't just be a truer picture of the world, but clearer solutions to many controversies—around vaccines, climate change, or evolution—that plague our politics today.

Let the Lord Sort Them

By Maurice Chammah,

Book cover of Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death

I spent my twenties watching in horror as Texas and then-Governor Bush executed more prisoners than any other governor in modern American history, only to be replaced by Gov. Rick Perry who executed even more. In Chammah’s deeply researched non-fiction exploration of the death penalty, he focuses on Texas, “the epicenter of capital punishment.” I better understood our justice system through his intimate focus on the individuals impacted by the larger system. And the book gave me a measure of hope, too—the societal problems that seem intractable can actually improve over time, through the work of many.

Who am I?

I was born and raised in Texas, and I’ve lived here most of my life. For good or for ill, Texas looms large in the American consciousness and, since everything is bigger in Texas, so are the stereotypes. While you can definitely still find cattle ranches and oil wells in our state, modern Texas is much more complex and diverse than many people might think. While I love books that show those traditional elements of Texas (looking at you, Lonesome Dove!), I have always delighted in finding books that give me a new lens on what it means to be a Texan. I hope you’re delighted by these too.

I wrote...

Olympus, Texas

By Stacey Swann,

Book cover of Olympus, Texas

What is my book about?

The Briscoe family is once again the talk of their small town when March returns to East Texas two years after he was caught having an affair with his brother's wife. His mother, June, hardly welcomes him back with open arms. Her husband's own past affairs have made her tired of being the long-suffering spouse. Within days of March's arrival, someone is dead, marriages are upended, and even the strongest of alliances are shattered. In the end, the ties that hold them together might be exactly what drag them all down. An expansive tour de force, Olympus, Texas cleverly weaves elements of classical mythology into a thoroughly modern family saga, rich in drama and psychological complexity. 

Until I Could Be Sure

By George H. Ryan,

Book cover of Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois

This is the true first person account of Illinois Governor George Ryan’s courageous and unprecedented decision to suspend the death penalty and empty death row in 2003. He oversaw the state’s last execution, an experience that was seared in his brain. In 2000, he became the first governor (and a Republican at that) to impose a moratorium on the death penalty. I was there as a journalist and I helped him write this powerful memoir.

Who am I?

I am a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has worked for the past 10 years as the senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations. In that capacity, I have written nearly 2,500 individual accounts of men and women and teenagers who were wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. Some of them were sentenced to death. I have seen and written about these tragedies firsthand.

I wrote...

Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI's Story of Courage and Faith

By John D. Woodbridge, Maurice Possley,

Book cover of Hitler in the Crosshairs: A GI's Story of Courage and Faith

What is my book about?

Hitler in the Crosshairs is a true story of a courageous soldier who volunteered to lead a raid to take out Adolf Hitler in Munich in the closing days of World War II. It is also the true story of a German-led revolt against the Nazis that saved the city of Munich from the firestorm that destroyed Dresden.

The Innocent Man

By John Grisham,

Book cover of The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

We all know that Grisham writes best-selling fiction that has been turned into several Hollywood blockbusters. But the most frightening book by this former small-town defence lawyer is his only work of non-fiction, an account of the wrongful conviction of Ronald Keith Williamson of the 1982 sex murder of Debra Sue Carter. Williamson, who was low-hanging fruit for police and prosecutors in Ada, Oklahoma, languished in prison for 11 years before being exonerated by DNA evidence. This book should be mandatory reading for police, prosecutors, and judges and is a useful reminder that public opinion and justice are often mutually exclusive.

Who am I?

As an academic, I have been researching Canadian police and criminal justice history since the 1980s and I teach courses on the history of policing, crime, drugs and homicide, and capital punishment. In 2014 I began to cover a high-profile murder trial in my region of Canada and ended up writing a best-selling book on the case. The Oland case reinforced my interest in true crime, both as a research topic and a cultural phenomenon. True crime, whether set in the distant past or contemporary times, offers writers and readers alike fascinating forays into specific societies and communities as well as human nature.

I wrote...

Truth & Honour: The Oland Family Murder Case That Shocked Canada

By Greg Marquis,

Book cover of Truth & Honour: The Oland Family Murder Case That Shocked Canada

What is my book about?

Truth and Honour explores the 2011 murder of Saint John businessman Richard Oland, of the prominent family that owns Moosehead Breweries, the ensuing police investigation, and the arrest, trial, and conviction of the victim's son, Dennis Oland, for second ­degree murder.

Oland's trial would be the most publicized in New Brunswick history. What the trial judge called "a family tragedy of Shakespearian proportions," this real­life murder mystery included adultery, family dysfunction, largely circumstantial evidence, allegations of police incompetence, a high-powered legal defence, and a verdict that shocked the community. Truth and Honour explores this question: was Dennis Oland responsible for the death of his father?

Stolen Time

By Sunny Jacobs,

Book cover of Stolen Time: One Woman's Inspiring Story as an Innocent Condemned to Death

This is my all-time favourite book. I heard the author tell her story and her resilience over a zoom conference and I immediately knew that my life would never be the same. I didn’t know how but I knew I would be different.

Stolen Time is about a woman wrongly convicted for murder who spent 17 years incarcerated, five of those years were spent in solitary confinement on death row. Her partner was also sentenced and in fact executed two years before Sunny was exonerated. It's the beautiful way Sunny speaks that made this my all-time favourite read. It’s a love story with real tragedy but told in the most resilient and forgiving way. I found it totally inspiring. Sunny taught me that no matter what the circumstances we have a duty to love and forgive no matter what if we want to live free. No one can steal our…

Who am I?

I am Karen Slater the author of My Journey Through Hell. It’s a memoir of addiction and generational abuse. A story about my dysfunctional childhood and the negative consequences that took me to hell and back. The books I love the most are the stories that inspire me. The true stories of real people overcoming tragedy and adversity give me such hope and motivation to keep on doing what I do and reach other people still struggling. I like to think these are the books that radiate courage and optimism and let others know that we all have our crosses to bear but we can bear them nonetheless.

I wrote...

My Journey Through Hell: Finding My True Worth

By Karen Slater,

Book cover of My Journey Through Hell: Finding My True Worth

What is my book about?

Karen grew up believing she was worth nothing, told by her parents on a daily basis she was a useless excuse for a human being. She was beaten and abused and exposed to the dangers of a rough council estate in Newcastle’s West End. 

Her life became a drunken blur as she spiraled out of control and eventually there was only one way out. She was found just in time and in intensive care she watched a slowing heart monitor and begged her God to let her die. As she drifted in and out of consciousness spoke to her, told her that she had something to live for, a purpose, because why should people be made to suffer the way she had? She had to live, had to talk to the abused, help the victims of domestic violence, those who had been raped, and the alcoholics and the addicts. The day she left hospital Karen Slater bought some exercise books and some pens and began to write. This is her story, her message to the world.

The Hanging Tree

By V.A.C. [Vic] Gatrell,

Book cover of The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868

The Hanging Tree is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read about how the other half (more like seven-eights actually) lived. It describes the experience of the mainly lower-class people who suffered under the Bloody Code, when over 250 offences carried the death penalty. By using diaries, memoirs, broadsides, petitions for mercy, letters, and other contemporary documents, Gatrell gives voice to the executed, their executioners, witnesses, reformers, judges and juries. It’s an unflinching study of a ghastly reality that goes to the heart of what it means to be a civilized society and challenges several cozy myths along the way. I admit it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and of course, the subject matter is dark, but Gatrell is a compelling writer, vivid, forthright and passionate.

Who am I?

I write historical fiction, non-fiction, and biography. My historical fiction is set in the eighteenth century, which is often pictured as a time when people swanned about in fancy clothes, lived on country estates, travelled in gleaming carriages, and dined and danced their nights away in glittering assembly rooms. But most people didn’t live like that at all, although they are the ones who made the clothes, worked on the estates, drove the carriages, cooked the food, and cleaned the rooms. The books on my list focus on history from their point of view. In my own work – fiction and non-fiction – I’m also interested in telling the stories of so-called “ordinary” people.

I wrote...

The Fatal Coin: A Dan Foster novella

By Lucienne Boyce,

Book cover of The Fatal Coin: A Dan Foster novella

What is my book about?

In the winter of 1794 Bow Street Runner Dan Foster is assigned to guard a Royal Mail coach. The mission ends in tragedy when a young constable is shot dead by a highwayman calling himself Colonel Pepper. Dan is determined to bring Pepper to justice, but the trail runs cold. Four months later Dan is sent to Staffordshire to recover a recently excavated hoard of Roman gold which has gone missing. Here he unexpectedly encounters Colonel Pepper again. The hunt is back on, and this time Dan will risk his life to bring down Pepper and his gang. 

The Fatal Coin is a prequel novella to Bloodie Bones, the first full-length Dan Foster Mystery, which was joint winner of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016.

Bookshelves related to capital punishment