Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College.

Professor Sarat founded both Amherst College’s Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought and the national scholarly association, The Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. He is former President of that Association and has also served as President of the Law and Society Association and of the Consortium of Undergraduate Law and Justice Programs.

He is author or editor of more than ninety books including Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution (Stanford University Press, 2022), The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment (Cambridge University Press, 2019), The Lives of Guns (Oxford University Press, 2018), and Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty (Stanford University Press, 2014).

He is editor of the journal Law, Culture and the Humanities and of Studies in Law, Politics, and Society

Professor Sarat has received numerous prizes and awards including the Harry Kalven Award given by the Law Society Association for “distinguished research on law and society”; the Reginald Heber Smith Award given biennially to honor the best scholarship on “the subject of equal access to justice”; the James Boyd White Award, from the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities, given for distinguished scholarly achievement and “outstanding and innovative” contributions to the humanistic study of law; and the Hugo Adam Bedau Award, given to honor significant contributions to death penalty scholarship by the Massachusetts Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

His public writing has appeared in such places as The New Republic, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, The National Law Journal, Slate, The Providence Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Aljazeera America, US News, CNN, Politico, The Conversation, and The Daily Beast. He has been a commentator or guest on HuffPost Live, The Morning Briefing on Sirius Radio, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, The Rick Ungar Show, Democracy Now, ABC World News Tonight, All in with Chris Hayes, The Point with Ari Melber, and The O’Reilly Factor.

Columns by Austin Sarat
Should Prosecutors Worry About Having Jewish People on Capital Juries?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the systematic exclusion of Jewish people from death penalty juries in Alameda County, California, and explores Jewish perspectives on capital punishment. Professor Sarat argues that while Jewish religious texts mention capital punishment, rabbinical interpretations and Jewish history have made many Jews wary of the death penalty, and the discriminatory practices in Alameda County highlight the need to end capital punishment altogether.

Death Penalty States Beware: Nitrogen Hypoxia Is Not the Solution to America’s Long History of Inhumane Executions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the recent adoption of nitrogen hypoxia as a method of execution in several U.S. states, focusing on Alabama’s recent executions and other states considering or implementing this method. Professor Sarat argues that, despite proponents’ claims, nitrogen hypoxia is not a humane or problem-free method of execution, but instead echoes the unfulfilled promises made about previous execution methods like electrocution, gas chambers, and lethal injection.

What Campus Protests May Do to the 2024 Presidential Election

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the recent surge in pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses across the United States and how these protests have become a political issue in the 2024 presidential campaign. Professor Sarat argues that while peaceful protest should be protected, violent and disruptive protests should not be tolerated, and expresses concern that the campus protests, despite their aim to support human rights, may inadvertently help those who seek to undermine human rights and decency both domestically and internationally.

What Oklahoma Did to Clayton Lockett Ten Years Ago Changed the National Conversation About Botched Executions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in 2014 and how it marked a turning point in the public perception of capital punishment. Professor Sarat argues that the repeated failures and mistakes in the death penalty system, exemplified by Lockett’s execution and the disproportionate impact on Black individuals, have undermined the moral justification for capital punishment and strengthened the case for abolition.

Mike Johnson’s Visit to Columbia Ups the Ante in the Right-Wing Attack on Universities

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses House Speaker Mike Johnson’s recent visit to Columbia University, which Professor Sarat argues is part of a broader right-wing attack on universities, particularly those with elite reputations. Professor Sarat explains that Johnson’s visit, which called for the resignation of Columbia’s president due to alleged antisemitism on campus, was a politically motivated stunt designed to appeal to MAGA Republicans, and that universities must band together to defend their independence against such outside political interference.

Black People Pay a High Price for this Country’s Illusory Pursuit of Humane Executions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the history of execution methods in the United States and the recent findings from a Reprieve report showing that lethal injection executions of Black inmates are botched at a much higher rate than those of White inmates. Professor Sarat argues that this racial disparity in botched executions is unsurprising given the pervasive racist stereotypes and unequal treatment of Black bodies throughout American society, from schools to policing to healthcare, and reflects the illusory nature of the quest for a humane execution method.

The Cruelty of Punishment Without Purpose

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the recent execution of Brian Dorsey by the state of Missouri and explores the question whether executing a rehabilitated prisoner violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Professor Sarat argues that Dorsey’s execution served no legitimate penological purpose because he had been successfully rehabilitated during his time in prison, and therefore his execution amounted to cruel punishment without a justifiable purpose.

California Prosecutor Seeks Sentence Reductions for Death Row Inmates. Other Prosecutors Should Follow Suit

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the recent unprecedented request by Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen to resentence all death row inmates from his county, highlighting the critical role prosecutors play as gatekeepers in the death penalty system. Professor Sarat argues that Rosen’s actions, driven by concerns about racial bias and changing attitudes towards capital punishment, serve as an important example for other prosecutors to follow in order to right past wrongs and ensure justice is upheld, regardless of how much time has passed.

Courts Need to Respond to Trump’s Efforts to Intimidate Judges and Undermine Judicial Legitimacy

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over Trump’s New York hush money trial, as well as on the prosecutor and the judge’s daughter. Professor Sarat argues that Trump’s contemptuous remarks and efforts to intimidate and discredit the judiciary should be met with contempt orders and appropriate penalties by the courts, as silence or acquiescence in the face of such behavior is far worse and threatens the integrity and independence of the judicial system.

Trump Wants 2024 to Be a Nostalgia Trip. Biden Should Not Take the Bait

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the role of nostalgia in the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign, focusing on how Donald Trump and Joe Biden are framing the contest around voters’ recollections of the past. Professor Sarat argues that while Biden wants voters to remember Trump’s poor handling of the early COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Trump benefits more from nostalgia as voters tend to remember the pre-pandemic economy positively, suggesting that, to prevail, Biden must shift focus to his vision for the future.

Election Denialism 2024, Spring Edition

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses Donald Trump’s long history of making false claims about election fraud and his current warnings about the 2024 presidential election being rigged. Professor Sarat argues that Trump’s baseless allegations are damaging democracy, sowing distrust in the electoral process, and setting the stage for potential unrest if he loses in November.

Georgia Court Case Tests the Limits of Execution Secrecy in the United States

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses Georgia’s plan to execute Willie James Pye on March 20, 2023, and the state’s efforts to restrict press access and impose secrecy around the execution process. Professor Sarat argues that Georgia’s lethal injection protocol, which severely limits what the press can witness and the public can know about executions, is unlawful and arbitrary, serving no legitimate state interest, and that the court should grant the request to stop executions until the restrictions on press access are removed.

14th Amendment Disqualification Decision Saves Trump but Damages the Supreme Court

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trump v. Anderson, where the Court ruled that Donald Trump could not be disqualified from appearing on the ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, emphasizing the decision’s implications for the Court’s prestige and internal consensus. Professor Sarat argues that the decision, while appearing unanimous, reveals deep divisions within the Court and suggests a failure by Chief Justice John Roberts to foster genuine unanimity or to protect the Court’s reputation, further criticizing the decision’s approach and its broader implications for the Court’s impartiality.

The Execution of Ivan Cantu Is a Reminder of Why We Execute the Innocent and Always Will

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the execution of Ivan Cantu in Texas, using it as a case study to explore the broader issue of innocent individuals being executed in the United States. Professor Sarat argues that the continued use of the death penalty inevitably leads to the execution of innocent people, underscoring the urgent need to abolish capital punishment to prevent such irreversible injustices.

Another Botched Lethal Injection, Another Official Refusal to Accept Responsibility for Failure in the Execution Process

Amherst professor Austin Sarat examines the recent failed execution attempt of Thomas Eugene Creech in Idaho, highlighting lethal injection’s history of unreliability and the broader context of its use as an execution method in the United States. Professor Sarat argues that systemic issues and denial by state officials perpetuate the cruelty and inefficiency of lethal injections, urging an acknowledgment of its failures and a cessation of its use for capital punishment.

Alabama Should Not Be Allowed to Carry Out Another Nitrogen Hypoxia Execution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a lawsuit filed by David Phillip Wilson, currently on Alabama’s death row for a 2004 murder, claiming that Alabama’s plan to execute him by nitrogen gas violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Professor Sarat notes the state’s problematic history with gas executions and the recent painful, 22-minute execution of Kenneth Smith by nitrogen gas, and argues that Wilson’s lawsuit makes a compelling case that nitrogen hypoxia presents a substantial risk of severe pain and suffering.

The Gas Chamber, 100 Years of Cruelty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the 100-year history of gas chamber executions in the United States, highlighting the method’s failure to provide a humane and reliable form of capital punishment despite initial claims, and marking the recent revival of its use in Alabama as a continuation of this problematic legacy. Professor Sarat details the origins and implementation of gas chambers, including the first execution of Gee Jon in Nevada and the various adaptations states made over the years, culminating in a critique of lethal gas as an inhumane method that has consistently resulted in torture and botched executions.

Robert Hur’s Report on Biden Shows How Ageism Works

Amherst professor Austin Sarat criticizes the ageism evident in special counsel Robert Hur’s report on Joe Biden's handling of classified documents, highlighting its undue focus on the President’s age-related memory issues as irrelevant and prejudicial. Professor Sarat argues that such ageism, while pervasive and often ignored, undermines the valuable contributions of older individuals, emphasizing the importance of experience over age-related cognitive decline.

Oklahoma’s New Execution Plan Highlights the Magnitude of America’s Death Penalty Problems

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the proposal by Oklahoma’s Attorney General and the Director of the Department of Corrections to execute execute six individuals with 90-day intervals between each, in a purported effort to address operational and mental health strains on execution team members. Professor Sarat points out that this plan fails to address deeper injustices within the death penalty system, not the least of which is the significant toll on those involved in executions, as well as the systemic issues of unfair trials and racial bias affecting death row inmates.

Another New Execution Method, Another Botched Execution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat laments the continued occurrence of botched executions in the United States, focusing on the recent introduction of nitrogen hypoxia in Alabama, which resulted in another failed attempt. Professor Sarat describes the disturbing details of Kenneth Smith’s execution, where the promise of a quick and painless death by nitrogen hypoxia was broken, leading to a prolonged and torturous process, thus adding to the history of failed executions with new methods in the United States.