Twas the Devil: Hearing the Constitutional Infirmity of the Modern American Death Penalty in the Bygone Songs of Ozark Folklore
Posted: 21 Jul 2017
Date Written: July 18, 2017
In the midcentury Ozark Highlands, folklorist Mary Celestia Parler collected over 4,500 reel-to-reel recordings of hillfolk singing the songs and spinning the tales of their ancestors. The Ozark Folksong Collection was recently digitized in a preservation effort at the University of Arkansas Libraries, providing new access to the deeply rooted folk knowledge of the region. Murder ballads reveal that murderers were consistently portrayed to generations of Ozarkers as inhuman monsters, purely evil, with an inevitable deservingness of the death penalty uncomplicated by complex behavioral drives or moral vagaries. News reports, commentary, rhetoric, and prosecutorial arguments surrounding twenty-first century executions of capital defendants tried in Ozark counties of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma reflect that Ozarkers still rely on folkloric attributes to understand murderers. As a result, folk knowledge supplants Eighth Amendment principles that require capital sentencing jurors to view defendants as complexly, multidimensionally human and subject to biopsychosocial influences. Because there are regional folk traditions across the country, the folklore-based constitutional infirmity of the modern American death penalty apparent in the Ozarks is sure to occur beyond the hilltops.
Keywords: death penalty, Eighth Amendment
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