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
Alabama’s Latest Steps to Use Nitrogen Hypoxia Recapitulate the Failed Promise of Humane Execution

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.

Donald Trump Wants to Use the Firing Squad, Mass Executions, and Videos to Turn Executions Into Reality TV

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.

Alabama Needs to Change Course and Clean Up Its Death Penalty Mess

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent petition by 170 faith leaders in Alabama asking Governor Kay Ivey to create an independent commission to study and address Alabama’s death penalty problems. Professor Sarat describes the recent botched executions in that state and laments that their eloquent appeal seems likely to fall on deaf ears in a state that is not yet ready to clean up its death penalty mess.

South Carolina Tries to Ramp Up Secrecy in a Frantic Effort to Restart Executions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the many attempts by South Carolina to resume executions in that state. Professor Sarat describes the recent history of capital punishment in that state and notes that a recent decision by the South Carolina supreme court put on hold a case involving death row inmates’ challenge to the state’s attempt to use the electric chair and the firing squad.

Do We Really Need the Third Amendment? Or What Can and Should We Do About Constitutional Vestiges

Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out the obsolescence of the Third Amendment and considers how we should regard that and other constitutional provisions that no longer serve the era in which we live. Professor Sarat argues that the Supreme Court has the unique authority to help the Constitution adapt to changing times, but the fascination of the Court’s current conservative majority with originalism threatens that adaptive capacity.

Arizona Takes a Step Toward Abolishing the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how Arizona has recently taken a small but significant step toward abolishing the death penalty, with actions by Governor Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes. Professor Sarat points out that Hobbs’s executive order calling for an independent commissioner to review certain aspects of the death penalty process in that state will shed light on a procedure that thrives only in darkness and secrecy.

What Ann Coulter Doesn’t Know and Doesn’t Want Her Readers to Know About Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on an opinion piece by ultra-conservative propagandist Ann Coulter in which Coulter is trying to revive America’s death penalty based on untruths and half-truths. Professor Sarat explains why the information Coulter cites is at best misleading and at times completely false, and he argues that any outrage should be directed at the death penalty itself, which is rife with problems at every stage.

What Role, If Any, Should Hatred Play in the Justice Department’s Investigation of Donald Trump?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on remarks by former President Donald Trump that Special Prosecutor Jack Smith, who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to supervise the Justice Department’s investigation of Trump, is motivated by hatred of Trump. Professor Sarat points out that Trump’s perception that those who oppose him hate him epitomizes narcissism and that psychologists have characterized Trump as personalizing every conflict and seeing every political relationship as transactional.

Arizona Is a New Death Penalty Battleground State

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that Arizona’s new attorney general—Kris Mayes—should now seize her opportunity to make good on her promise to put a pause on all executions in that state. Professor Sarat describes Arizona’s recent spate of botched executions and calls upon Mayes to support a death-row inmate’s withdrawal of his request be executed, thereby making Arizona the latest state to confront the troubling issues that have plagued the death penalty across the country.

When the Time Comes, I’d Like to Die on My Own Terms—But the Massachusetts Supreme Court Won’t Let Me

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s refusal to recognize a constitutional right to medical aid in dying. Professor Sarat describes the basis of that decision and explains why state courts should recognize that right based on their own state constitutions.

As America’s Death Penalty Declines, Let’s Not Lose Sight of the Glaring Injustices That Remain

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on capital punishment in 2022, pointing out that while it has continued its decades-long decline, it is still plagued with serious injustices. Professor Sarat argues that as abolitionists litigate to stop death sentences and executions, we must remember that the fight must ultimately be won in the political arena rather than only in the courts.

It is Time for the Biden Administration to Join the Rest of the World in Moving Against the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Biden administration should join the rest of the world in officially opposing the death penalty by supporting the U.N. General Assembly’s resolution establishing a moratorium on executions. Professor Sarat points out that while supporting the resolution would not force the federal or state governments to change the status quo, it would put this country on record as committed to ending the death penalty—a particularly important accomplishment for a President who ran as an abolitionist.

The Defense and a Special Prosecutor Agree About Unfairness in a Missouri Capital Case: Will That Be Enough to Stop an Execution?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a Missouri capital case in which both the defense lawyer and a special prosecutor appointed to review the case agree that unconstitutional racial bias played a crucial role in the handling of the case. Professor Sarat points out that such agreement is very unusual and that it thus falls to the Missouri Supreme Court to halt the execution so that the issues they have raised can be thoroughly investigated, or else allow the execution to go forward in a move that is perilously close to the state supreme court acquiescing in a lynching.

With America’s Death Penalty, New Evidence Shows that Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent report by National Public Radio (NPR) that the more people know about the death penalty, the less they support its use. Professor Sarat points out that people closely involved with executions tend to change their opinions to oppose capital punishment due to a “profound sense of shame or guilt” that they experience.

How Trump’s Supreme Court Helped Save American Democracy from Trump

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains how the Supreme Court that Donald Trump refashioned paradoxically prompted Americans to reassert the values of democracy. Professor Sarat points out that the Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization eliminating the constitutional right to abortion was one of the driving factors behind the large numbers of Americans voting in the midterm election.

There Should Be a Right to Counsel Throughout the Execution Process

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that there should be a constitutional right to counsel throughout the execution process, particularly given the frequency with which serious errors occur during that time. Professor Sarat calls upon courts to recognize that the execution process is a “critical stage” of a criminal proceeding deserving the defendant’s right to legal representation.

Ohio Plans to Execute a Man It Knows Is Innocent—Why?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Anthony Apanovitch—a man on Ohio’s death row who was exonerated yet whom the state still plans to execute. Professor Sarat describes Apanovitch’s unique situation and calls upon the Ohio Parole Board to recommend to Ohio’s governor that Apanovitch be pardoned and set free.

Alabama’s Plan to Execute Kenneth Smith May Be Legal, But It Is Not Just

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Kenneth Smith, whom Alabama plans to execute by lethal injection on November 17 based on a judge’s decision overriding a jury’s determination that he be sentenced to life in prison rather than death. Professor Sarat explains why such judicial override cases are so unjust, particularly given that Alabama has repealed judicial override (but not retroactively).

The Supreme Court’s Cold Indifference in Alabama Death Penalty Case

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Alabama’s recent aborted execution of Alan Miller. Professor Sarat describes how the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Miller’s execution to go forward despite a serious dispute about whether Miller submitted a form electing an execution method other than lethal injection.