In the spirit of American Independence Day, Amherst professor Austin Sarat suggests that we not only celebrate America’s ideals but also reflect on its failings—failings that include its continued use of capital punishment. Professor Sarat reiterates the problems with capital punishment, such as the ineffective and inhumane methods of execution, racial inequities, time on death row, and the fact that most of those we execute are victims of extensive abuse and neglect from childhood or earlier.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the most recent off-the-Court behavior by Justice Samuel Alito: preemptively responding to a ProPublica report that the Justice had gone on a $100,000 trip paid for by Republican mega-donor Paul Singer. Professor Sarat argues that this behavior is just the latest demonstration of Alito’s “grievance conservatism” and has no place on the highest court in the land.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent exoneration of Barry Lee Jones from Arizona’s death row after evidence against him was revealed as “flawed.” Professor Sarat argues that shoddy defense lawyering, junk science, and myopic police work are regular features of America’s death penalty system and that dismantling the death penalty system is the only way to end the epidemic of false convictions.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent execution of Michael Tisius by the state of Missouri, despite a request by several of the jurors who sentenced him to death in 2010 that his sentence be commuted to life without parole. Professor Sarat points out that the finality and likelihood of errors are but two reasons that any civil and just society should abolish the death penalty.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out that when death penalty abolitionists take up the cause of saving the lives of people accused of mass murder, they need also to keep reminding people that, in the many less notorious cases in which the state seeks death as a punishment, the death penalty continues to legitimize vengeance, intensify racial divisions, promise simple solutions to complex problems, and damage our political and legal institutions.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the acceptance speech by Chief Justice John Roberts of the American Law Institute’s Henry Friendly Medal. Professor Sarat argues that the speech demonstrates the Chief Justice’s lack of empathy for litigants whose lives the Court’s decisions affect and a lack of awareness of his own life of privilege.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s use of lethal injection as a method of execution. Professor Sarat argues that Justice Thomas has seldom come across a death sentence he wouldn’t uphold or an execution he wouldn’t try to expedite—and his opinion in this case was no exception.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues forcefully that the U.S. Supreme Court should stay the execution of Richard Glossip, whom Oklahoma is planning to execute on May 18 despite serious doubts about the fairness and reliability of his conviction. Professor Sarat points out that the Oklahoma Attorney General supports Glossip’s application for a stay, recognizing that to carry out the execution would irreparably harm both the defendant and the integrity of Oklahoma’s justice system.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee’s approach to the death penalty demonstrates the value of “strategic gradualism.” Professor Sarat points out that the careful use of a scalpel, particularly in the movement to abolish the death penalty, can be more effective than the use of a sledgehammer.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Republican Party has embraced a kind of messianic politics, which divides the world into two categories: those who are “faithful” and those who are “heretics.” Professor Sarat explains why this dualistic division is dangerous and antithetical to democracy.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Republican Party has been consumed by the desire for revenge and retribution rather than love of country. Professor Sarat points out that a path toward a viable, democracy-loving second party will be bumpy, but has already been paved by the will of the voters in the last three national elections, which resulted in rejection of Trump and his MAGA followers.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that even in the Deep South, support for the death penalty is waning, with the latest development last week by Louisiana Governor John Bell Edwards announcing his support for ending the death penalty in his state. Professor Sarat calls upon other politicians in the South to sponsor and support bills to end capital punishment in their states.
In light of unsubstantiated comments by former President Trump about prosecutors with a political agenda, Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the importance of teaching law in the liberal arts. Professor Sarat points out that legal courses in the liberal arts are one place where students can learn about the politics of law and appreciate that while law is not completely separated from politics, nor is law completely subsumed by it.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why the plan by a coalition of death penalty opponents in Nebraska to put the death penalty on the ballot is a risky strategy. Professor Sarat points out that important and successful work that death penalty abolitionists have recently done to reframe the debates about capital punishment has not yet succeeded in the electoral arena, and history suggests that death penalty abolition is more likely to come from the top down than it is from the bottom up.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on recent news that Republican legislators in four Southern states have proposed legislation that would make abortion a capital offense in those states. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut point out the hypocrisy and cruelty of so-called “pro-lifers” advocating the death penalty for those who seek—and those who assist others in seeking—an abortion.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the number of bills recently introduced in many red states to curb prosecutorial discretion when it is exercised in ways that do not conform to their tough-on-crime agenda. Professor Sarat argues that prosecutorial discretion is an indispensable component of a society governed by laws, and that these bills violate the separation of powers, threaten to politicize prosecution, and, in so doing, undermine the rule of law.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent changes in Oklahoma that suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that the state may be poised to abolish the death penalty. Professor Sarat observes that the 2022 election results, the objections of religious leaders, doubts among conservative politicians, and declining public support may signal a tide change in a state that has long been a leader in using death as a punishment.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on two cases currently working their way through the Arizona court system, in which defense lawyers from the Capital Unit of the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender are raising innovative arguments based on the systemic racism in all aspects of American life. Professor Sarat argues that these carefully crafted and extensively documented motions call on judges to confront the reality of America’s racist past and continuing institutional racism before allowing the government to carry out any more “legal lynchings.”
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on recent news that Arkansas was “close” to completing the protocol needed to carry out executions by nitrogen hypoxia. Professor Sarat points out that nearly every method of execution was touted as “humane” when it was first introduced, but as history has proven time and time again, there is no such thing as a foolproof or humane execution.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on recent reporting that Donald Trump wants to use the firing squad, mass executions, and videos to heighten the drama of capital punishment. Professor Sarat argues that what Trump says about executions reveals the depth of his fascination with ghoulish things and that his latest death penalty musings offer a frightening reminder of the cruelty he would unleash if he is returned to the Oval Office.