Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Procedure
SCOTUS Should Revisit Demeanor’s Role in the Courtroom

UConn School of Law professor Julia Simon-Kerr comments on a case that squarely presents the question whether the courtroom demeanor and body language of a non-testifying defendant can play a role in the jury’s consideration of guilt or innocence. Professor Simon-Kerr points out that despite research showing no evidence that we can learn much, if anything, about a person’s untruthfulness from nonverbal cues, jurors frequently rely on those factors in deciding the credibility of witnesses and, apparently, even the culpability of non-testifying defendants. She suggests that it although it is unlikely the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, the case presents the Court with a unique opportunity to begin a long overdue reexamination of the privileged role of demeanor in our system of proof.

The United States v. Donald J. Trump: The Prosecution of a National Security Case

Attorney Jon May predicts that within the next six months, former President Donald Trump will be indicted for violating the Espionage Act arising from his possession of classified documents after he left the White House. Mr. May describes some of the challenges that potentially classified evidence poses for both Trump’s defense and for the prosecution.

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.

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 Professor Sarat explains why such judicial override cases are so unjust, particularly given that Alabama has repealed judicial override (but not retroactively).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.

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.

Justice Alito’s Opinion on Abortion: Not Just the End of Reproductive Rights, But the Downfall of Fundamental Civil Liberties Guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to All Americans

In this second of a series of columns on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., attorney Jon May argues that the decision threatens certain fundamental rights conferred by the Fourth Amendment. Mr. May predicts that those rights will not withstand the onslaught of law enforcement conduct in entering and searching our homes without a warrant, invading our private thoughts and associations found on our smart phones and computers, or stopping and searching us on the streets without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

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.

A New Answer to an Old Question

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why, when asked how he can defend someone accused of horrible crimes, he no longer uses the response that most criminal defense lawyers use—that a lawyer doesn’t defend their client’s behavior but instead holds the government to its burden by zealously defending their client’s rights. Instead, Professor Margulies responds to that question that he is defending the client’s humanity against society’s impulse to reduce a defendant to their deed, imprisoning them in their past.

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.

Vega v. Tekoh and the Supreme Court’s Conceptual Confusion

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that presents the question whether a plaintiff may sue a police officer for an interrogation that violates the rules announced in Miranda v. Arizona and results in a statement that the prosecution introduces at the plaintiff’s trial, which ends in acquittal. Professor Colb argues that whether one views adherence to Miranda as a constitutional requirement or instead as a prophylactic sub-constitutional practice should have little bearing on the outcome of the case.

European Courts Deliver a Wake-Up Call about American Prison Conditions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how courts in Europe, when faced with the question whether to extradite an escaped convict to the United States, have expressed greater concern about the conditions of American prisons than do American courts or legislatures. Professor Sarat argues that it is time for American courts to redress prison conditions and ensure that when we send someone to prison, we respect and protect their constitutional rights.

In the Sentencing of Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers, the Justice System Operated at its Best

Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut argues that the sentencing of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers last week demonstrated institutions and individuals within the judicial system operating at their best. Mr. Aftergut praises Judge Timothy Walmsley in particular for listening attentively to the victim impact statements and for deliberating on them before handing down the sentences.

A Tale of Two Juries

Texas law professor Jeffrey Abramson comments on two jury verdicts last week—the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the conviction of three men who attacked and killed Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia—that demonstrate our country’s division over race, guns, vigilantism, and self-defense. Professor Abramson notes that when evidence is borderline, as it was in the Rittenhouse trial, jurors are “liberated” to decide on the basis of their own sentiments and values. Professor Abramson argues that the rushed jury selection process in the Rittenhouse trial effectively placed the Second Amendment, rather than the individual defendant himself, on trial.

From Boston to Brunswick, Georgia: The Perils of Jury Selection

Texas law professor Jeffrey Abramson explains why the trial judge in the case against the three men who chased and shot to death Ahmaud Arbery should not commit the same mistake that occurred in the Boston Marathon trial—speeding up jury selection to convict obviously guilty defendants, only to have the sentence thrown out on appeal. Professor Abramson argues that while judges may understandably feel frustrated during jury selection in high-profile cases, taking shortcuts during jury selection risks forcing victims, witnesses, and the community to live through traumatic events twice.

Will the Death Penalty Survive the Pandemic?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that a sharp reduction in executions during the COVID-19 pandemic represents a clear departure from the typical response to crisis in the United States. Professor Sarat explores whether this departure signifies the demise of capital punishment, or instead whether, as suggested by Oklahoma’s plan to execute seven people over the next six months, we will see a return to the historic norm.

Abolitionists Must Put Reviving Clemency in Capital Cases High on Their Agenda

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat explains why death penalty abolitionists should prioritize seeking grants of clemency in capital cases. Professor Sarat points to studies showing that the use of clemency in individual capital cases has lagged behind a larger trend of states turning away from capital punishment and argues that we as a nation should demand from our leaders the courage and conviction to see people worth saving on death row and to exercise mercy toward them.

What If Edwards v. Vannoy Had Gone the Other Way?

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards v. Vannoy, in which it held that a prisoner may not invoke the denial of his Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury as a basis for challenging his criminal conviction when filing a federal habeas corpus petition. Professor Colb explains why, if cost/benefit analysis played a role in determining retroactivity, the Court perhaps should have decided that case the other way.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Samuel Estreicher
Samuel Estreicher

Samuel Estreicher is the Dwight D. Opperman Professor, Director, Center for Labor and Employment... more

Leslie C. Griffin
Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

Professor Marci A. Hamilton is a Professor of Practice in Political Science at the University of... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of... more

Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

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

Laurence H. Tribe
Laurence H. Tribe

Laurence H. Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more