It is easy to disagree about the death penalty in the abstract, but anyone who doesn't harbor serious reservations about its application--the racial disparities, the often dubious safeguards, the eleventh-hour Death Row exonerees--isn't paying adequate attention. There have been many powerful nonfictional explorations of the subject--Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, which got Randall Dale Adams released from Death Row, comes to mind, as does a 1998 essay by Jonathan Rauch entitled "Death by Mistake"--but few more powerful than David Grann's piece in this week's New Yorker, "Trial by Fire." (Full disclosure: I'm proud to call David a friend.)

Anyone who has followed Grann's work at The New Yorker, and before that here at TNR, will be unsurprised to find his examination of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for a crime he almost certainly did not commit, to be thorough, evenhanded, and utterly devastating. If you make it to the end without having your conscience shaken, you are made of sterner, or perhaps merely harder, stuff than I.