If we need to kill them, must we torture them?”
Those words—reproduced on our cover—jumped out at me the first time I read them in “Rewriting the Final Sentence,” freelancer Andrew Faught’s story on legal scholar Deborah Denno GrW’82 L’89, and they’ve stuck in my mind ever since. Economically phrased and emotionally resonant, they encapsulate a question that Denno has been thinking and writing about for decades as she’s established herself as a leading authority on the death penalty, whose work has been cited by the Supreme Court on multiple occasions.
A professor of law at Fordham University, Denno earned her PhD with legendary Penn sociologist and criminologist Marvin Wolfgang G’50 Gr’55, who inspired her with his nuanced and data-based approach to understanding criminal behavior. As a researcher after graduation, she was the first to discover a link between violence and lead poisoning. She went on to get her law degree from Penn, and clerked for Judge Anthony Scirica (an adjunct professor at the Law School), who praises her “deep understanding of sociology and psychology.”
As far back as the 1990s, Denno was making the case that lethal injection, originally introduced as a more humane method of execution, was anything but, subject to problems of unpredictability and effectiveness related both to the drugs used and the qualifications of those administering them. This position received dramatic support last year, which saw several seriously botched executions; in the worst case, a condemned prisoner in Arizona took two hours to die, apparently in considerable pain and distress all the while. (The process is supposed to take 10 minutes.)
Denno is also at the center of the ongoing debate over the use of neuroscience in criminal trials and sentencing. She has worked to promote due diligence among defense lawyers in availing themselves of such evidence, and in her own research has debunked the idea that brain science is a “double-edged sword” used either to excuse criminals from responsibility or to pre-emptively brand individuals as violent and dangerous.
While she privately opposes capital punishment, Denno is, as Faught puts it, “professionally neutral” on the subject; her argument has to do with the death penalty’s administration, and when and whether it violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel-and-unusual punishment. “Facts and sound arguments are among the best vehicles for change,” she told him.
In a considerably lighter vein (as what wouldn’t be?), JoAnn Greco’s “Cue the Middlemen” reports on a quartet of alumni businesses attempting to ride the Internet’s latest wave. While the online space has become increasingly crowded, services that “improve the quality of peoples’ lives at an affordable price will absolutely continue to grow,” as one expert told JoAnn. Examples here include real-estate “crowdfunding” (Fundrise); clothing (Wardrobe Wakeup); artisanal foodstuffs (Mouth); and curated events and products (Thrillist).
As we travel online, shopping, watching, and listening, we generate an enormous amount of data that companies use to guide them in producing more of what we want. Such tools were not available to Alan Livingston W’40, but “The Man Who Knew Talent” did pretty well without them. Frequent contributor Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 profiles Livingston (the younger brother of Oscar-winning songwriter Jay C’37), who created Bozo the Clown and ran Capitol Records, where he revived the flagging career of Frank Sinatra and helped introduce the Beatles to America.
Finally, this issue also includes the 2014 Alumni Award of Merit citations—congratulations to the winners!—and our annual Homecoming photo essay, in which both the less-than-ideal weather and the high spirits of those who attended in spite of it are apparent.