The story of Gary Gilmore: Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore

by Scott Vollum, Doctoral Student, College of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University

I submit these two books together because they are, in many ways, good companions to one another.  Together, these two books provide you with a thorough history and analysis of a single criminal--Gary Gilmore.  After reading both of these books you feel like you actually know and understand Gary Gilmore and what drove and motivated him to his criminal acts.

In Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, we are presented with the adult criminal life of Gary Gilmore and the resulting execution that would be the first in America since the Furman v. Georgia decision.  The book starts with Gilmore getting out of prison, follows his failed attempts at a "legitimate" life, the events leading up to a killing spree, and the resulting path back through the justice system.  This time, however, he would not be released back into society.  He was sentenced to death and in response demanded that the sentence be carried out.  He refused to cooperate in any attempt to appeal his death penalty sentence and even went so far as to challenge the system to put actions to their words.  This is significant because no one had been executed since the Furman case.  Gary Gilmore would force the hand of a system that was reluctant to begin executing people again.  Arguably, he opened up the flood gates for the implementation of the death penalty in the decades that were to follow.

Executioner's Song paints a very thorough portrait of a man driven to murder and to eventually demanding the end of his own life.  In regard to the Sutherland's three elements of Criminology: The making of law, breaking of law, and reaction to the breaking of law, they are all represented in this book.

Making of Law:
The representation of the making of law in Executioner's Song is not explicit but the execution of Gary Gilmore began a new era for the use of death as a punishment in American society effectively making it part of law once again.  Also, the question of whether the state can force an individual to adhere to the appeals processes so important in death penalty cases was asked.  Ultimately, there was a situation in which the offender was asking the state to take his life.  This raises a lot of potential legal issues surrounding the death penalty.  The door was closed on these issues when the execution of Gary Gilmore was carried out.  While these are not explicit examples of the portrayal of the making of law, they were important events that molded the way the death sentence is perceived and implemented under the law.

Breaking of Law:
The representation of the breaking of law is more clear and pervasive in Executioner's Song.  We are presented with a good example of a life-course-persistent criminal in Gary Gilmore.  We are also presented with some good examples of Agnew's General Strain Theory at work.  Gary Gilmore is a man that wants things in life but does not see the legitimate means to obtain them as existing for him.  He feels that the world is against him and reacts to this with anger and violence.  The many forms of strain that persisted throughout Gary Gilmore's life resulted in frustration and anger that ultimately led to a murderous rampage.

Reaction to the Breaking of Law:
The reaction to the breaking of law is clear in this book.  This books depiction of Gilmore's adjudication and time spent in prison and ultimately his execution are great examples of the system at work.


Shot in the Heart, too, presents us with the life of Gary Gilmore.  However, this book is written by his youngest brother and presents us with a portrayal of Gilmore's childhood and life growing up in a family with an abusive father.  This book gives us the background from which Gary Gilmore came and provides a deeper understanding of the man presented to us so well in Mailer's Executioner's Song.  What we begin to see, as this book chronicles Gilmore's young life, is the genesis of a murderer.  The crime correlates of social class and family are clearly analyzed in this very poignant account of a future murderer's upbringing.