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
It’s Time to End the Inhumanity of Confinement on America’s Death Rows

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent report by the advocacy group, the Legal Defense Fund, noting that the total number of people on death row is 3.6% lower than it was a year ago, and 35% lower than it was in 2001 when the death row population was at its peak. However, Professor Sarat highlights the inhumanity of allowing even this reduced number of people—indeed, anyone—to languish for years or decades on death row.

Biden’s Democracy Speech Highlights the New American Dilemma, Violence or Voting

Amherst professor Austin Sarat praises President Biden’s speech last Thursday as a much-needed reminder that Americans should settle their differences through voting not violence. Professor Sarat points out that today’s threat of political violence comes overwhelmingly from the political right, not the left, and from people who are not “lone wolves” but part of a broader community that echoes their violent ideas.

Cover-Up, Double-Talk, and Trial and Error Mark Lethal Injection’s Current Crisis

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Alabama’s recent botched execution of Joe Nathan James, which may have been the longest execution in American history. Professor Sarat argues that the cover-up, double-talk, and trial-and-error approach that mark lethal injection’s recent history mean that problems of the kind that occurred in the James execution will keep happening unless we stop using lethal injection altogether.

Trump’s Recent Calls to Execute Drug Traffickers Should Be a Wake-Up Call to the Biden Administration

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Donald Trump’s recently repeated calls to apply the death penalty to drug dealers. Professor Sarat points out that in 2020, only 30 people were executed worldwide for drug offenses (down from 116 in 2019), and they all occurred in China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—hardly the kind of examples that any nation committed to respecting human rights should want to emulate.

Oregon Case Reaffirms Both Breadth of the Clemency Power and the Primacy of Politics in Controlling Its Exercise

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent case in which the Oregon Court of Appeals held that Governor Kate Brown had the legal authority to grant mass clemency to more than 1,000 people convicted of crimes in her state. Professor Sarat points out that the decision joins a long line of others affirming the authority of governors and the President of the United States to grant clemency for “good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.”

South Carolina Case Puts the Electric Chair and the Firing Squad on Trial

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a challenge to South Carolina’s plan to use the electric chair or the firing squad to carry out executions. Professor Sarat describes the conflicting expert testimony regarding the suffering involved in each method of execution and argues that instead of debating about the pain of the condemned, we should reject the premise that death is a punishment the government should even be using.

Oklahoma Wants to Try Yet Again to Execute Richard Glossip in a Case That Illustrates the Death Penalty’s Betrayal of American Values

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Oklahoma’s now-fourth attempt to carry out the execution of Richard Glossip. Professor Sarat argues that Glossip’s case illustrates the many ways in which the death penalty betrays America’s values and commitments and that all Americans should join in efforts to end it.

James Coddington’s Clemency Petition Offers a Chance to Recognize the Rehabilitation and Redemption of Death Row Inmates

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the clemency petition filed by Oklahoma death-row inmate James Coddington. Professor Sarat argues that, though unlikely to succeed based on Oklahoma’s history, Coddington’s petition offers the state the chance to revive a tradition of recognizing rehabilitation and redemption for people on death row.

Death, Dignity, and the Ethics of Organ Donation in the Shadow of Execution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the controversy over whether death-row inmates should be permitted to donate their organs before or after their executions. Professor Sarat argues that to prohibit inmates from donating their organs is a further mark of their subjugation and that for many, organ donation is a way of giving life even as the state takes theirs.

On the Tenth Anniversary of Miller v. Alabama, Much Work Remains to End Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences

In light of 2022 marking the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out how important that decision was and how much still remains to be done to stop juvenile life without parole (LWOP) sentences. Professor Sarat points out that with the scientific recognition that the development of the human brain is not complete until a person is in their 20s, it does not make sense to treat child offenders the same way we treat adult offenders.

With Dobbs, We’re All in Bork’s America Now

Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut argue that Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, together with the language in Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion, put the country on a path toward the totalitarian state that one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork had envisioned. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut point out that Bork’s America would have a constitution that does not evolve or change to meet new circumstances and that affords no protection of citizens’ privacy from government intrusion

Judicial Deference and the Future of Lethal Injection

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent decision by a federal district court judge deferring to the evidence provided by the state in support of its lethal injection procedure, despite significant contradictory evidence. Professor Sarat argues that the trilogy of Supreme Court precedents on lethal injection not only altered the legal standards but tilted the playing field for fact-finding when death row inmates bring lethal injection challenges.

Can Finality Be More Important Than Justice Even If It Means Executing the Innocent?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shinn v. Ramirez, in which the Court held that federal judges may not intervene in state cases to protect the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel, even when there is evidence evidence that the condemned might be actually innocent. Professor Sarat points out that the decision demonstrates the conservative Justices’ prioritization of finality over justice and serves only to further erode confidence in and support for capital punishment in this country.

Time, the Execution Process, and the Botched Lethal Injection of Clarence Dixon

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent botched execution of Clarence Dixon in Arizona, pointing out that the repeated efforts to place the IVs demonstrate that lethal injection is not a humane process. Professor Sarat describes the importance of time in the execution process and argues that courts assessing the start time of an execution (for purposes of Eighth Amendment challenges and Double Jeopardy challenges) should start the clock from the moment of the first physical invasion of the inmate’s body, contrary to the Ohio Supreme Court’s determination that the insertion of IV lines is “merely a ‘preparatory’ step to the execution.”

Fifth Anniversary of Arkansas’s 2017 Execution Spree Is a Good Time to Confront Capital Punishment’s Troubling Flaws

In light of the fifth anniversary of Arkansas’s capital punishment spree, Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes some of the major flaws of the death penalty. Professor Sarat points out that although lethal injection was once touted as a technological miracle that would ensure executions would be safe, reliable, and humane, the practice has had a history marked by problems, mishaps, and mayhem.

Aborted Tennessee Execution Highlights Lethal Injection’s Crippling Problems Part One in a Series

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Tennessee’s recent last-minute cancellation of the execution of Oscar Franklin Smith for a “technical oversight.” Professor Sarat points out that such problems typically mean that state officials identified contamination in the compounded execution drugs or the “use by date” had passed, but the veil of secrecy surrounding executions prevents the public from discovering the true nature of the problem.

Living in Capital Punishment Limbo

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes the current state of capital punishment in the United States, in particular, the 27 states that authorize death sentences but have not actually carried out an execution in the last five or ten years. Professor Sarat argues that this limbo for death row inmates causes unnecessary suffering and reflects an appropriate reluctance to kill in the name of the state.

New Federal Law Reminds Americans of What Lynching Really Means

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how politicians have misused the term “lynching” for their own political purposes, thereby threatening to dilute its meaning. Professor Sarat praises President Biden for signing into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act and calls upon the president and Attorney General Merrick Garland to use its historic passage to put the full weight of the federal government behind efforts to stem the epidemic of hate crimes plaguing this country.