Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Procedure
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.

The U.S. Supreme Court Takes a Step toward Defunding the Police

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Caniglia v. Strom, holding that police may not enter a private home to perform a “community caretaking” function without having a search warrant. Professor Colb suggests that by recognizing limits on the authority of law enforcement officers to enter a home without a warrant in these circumstances, the Court may be implicitly adopting the message of “defunding the police” by reallocating a non-police function to better-suited responders, such as social workers or mental health experts.

The Dreadful Failure of Lethal Injection

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on the decomposition of the legal injection paradigm over the past few decades, since it was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1999. Professor Sarat observes the evolution of the procedure over time and points out that none of the changes has resolved lethal injection’s fate or repaired its vexing problems.

Virginia Delivers a Rebuke to Trump’s Execution Spree and Points to the End of America’s Death Penalty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on the news that both houses of the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation abolishing the death penalty in that state. Professor Sarat explains why Virginia’s change in policy is so significant: it has executed more people than any other state and is the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to abolish capital punishment.

Can a Misdemeanor Count as an “Emergency” for Purposes of Skipping the Warrant?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court that presents the question whether the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement applies when the suspect may have committed a misdemeanor, as opposed to a more serious crime. Colb argues that if the Court believes that a misdemeanor (or a particular misdemeanor) is not important enough to justify the invasion of a person’s home, then it ought perhaps to hold that the police officer in the present should not have entered the suspect’s home, period, with or without a warrant.

What Is a Seizure, and What Is a Holding? The Court Hears Argument in Torres v. Madrid

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on two particular aspects of a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument last month, Torres v. Madrid. First, Colb discusses the distinction, for Fourth Amendment purposes, between touching someone directly with one’s hands and touching someone indirectly using an inanimate object. Second, she explains the difference between holding and dicta in a court opinion. Using these two points as illustrations, Colb shows how flexible the Constitution can be, lending itself to very different interpretations.

Narrow Debate About the Death Penalty

In light of the federal government’s resumption of executions, Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes some of the common arguments of proponents and opponents of capital punishment. Colb observes that many of the moral arguments are based on a consequentialist perspective and suggests that a deontological perspective might lead to novel arguments and considerations about the death penalty.

What Happened in Kahler v. Kansas?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes how the U.S. Supreme Court purported to allow the state of Kansas to substitute one insanity defense for another, but in fact approved its abolishment of the insanity defense altogether. Colb explains the difference between the insanity defense—an affirmative defense to the commission of a crime—and facts that negate mens rea—the mental element of a crime. Colb also notes how in dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer made a case for veganism, albeit probably inadvertently.

Should Acquittals Require Unanimity?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb considers the policy question of whether, since the Constitution requires jury unanimity to convict a defendant of a serious crime, states should require a unanimous verdict to acquit a defendant, as well. Colb describes the reasons behind jury unanimity convictions and assesses whether they apply similarly to acquittals.

William Barr Has Made the Federal Death Penalty a Weapon in Trump’s Campaign Arsenal

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on Attorney General William Barr’s recent order to resume federal executions and the political implications of that order. Sarat briefly describes the history of the federal death penalty in the United States and explains that, regardless of what state we live in, when the federal government puts someone to death, it does so in all of our names.

Home Invasion: Warrantless Searches in Brazil and the United States

Igor De Lazari, a Brazilian legal scholar, and Antonio Sepulveda, Professor of Law at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) and at the Fluminense Federal University, offer a comparative analysis of warrantless searches in Brazil and the United States. De Lazari and Sepulveda call for guidance from each country’s high court to help clarify the law and facilitate uniform and predictable rulings on the constitutionality of certain warrantless searches.

The Third-Party Doctrine vs. Katz v. United States

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb proposes revising the third-party doctrine in a way that reconciles two of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions that some critics view as conflicting. Colb suggests that, contrary to what most critics argue and what she herself has long assumed, the prior decision, Katz v. United States rather than the later one, United States v. White, is the anomaly.

The Illusory Quest to Execute Only “The Worst of the Worst”

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—explains how a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court allowing that state to proceed with its plan to execute Harry Franklin Phillips highlights America’s illusory quest to ensure that the death penalty be precisely targeted only at “the worst of the worst.” Sarat argues that it is now time to acknowledge that the attempt to exclude clear categories of offenders from death eligibility has failed to adequately protect the dignity of those prisoners, which Justice Anthony Kennedy viewed as a central part of the Eighth Amendment.

Rethinking Retroactivity in Light of the Supreme Court’s Jury Unanimity Requirement

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Monday in Ramos v. Louisiana, in which it held that the federal Constitution forbids states from convicting defendants except by a unanimous jury, Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the Court’s jurisprudence on retroactivity. Dorf highlights some costs and benefits of retroactivity and argues that the Court’s refusal to issue advisory opinions limits its ability to resolve retroactivity questions in a way that responds to all the relevant considerations.

Is a Gunshot Wound a Seizure?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether a police officer who shot and hit a fleeing suspect “seized” that suspect, thereby triggering the Fourth Amendment, even though the wounded suspect escaped the police. Colb explains some of the arguments and predicts an outcome that would affirm precedents and offers a compromise between competing constitutional concerns.

Kansas v. Glover and Conditional Irrelevance

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses the concept of “conditional irrelevance”—which she first identified in a law review article in 2001—and explains why the concept is useful for understanding the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kansas v. Glover. Through the lens of conditional irrelevance, Colb explains why the knowledge of one fact (that the owner of the vehicle in that case lacked a valid license) should not itself provide police reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.

You Have the Right to the Silent Treatment

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb proposes the psychological effects of the “silent treatment” as a possible reason that arrested individuals who understand their Miranda rights nevertheless confess to the police. Rather than seeking to dispute or displace other explanations of the phenomenon, Colb suggests that when police leave a suspect alone in his cell, he may experience their exit as the silent treatment and confess as an attempt to end it.

What Insanity and Animal Welfare Have in Common

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb why the question whether a state may abolish the insanity defense (presently before the Supreme Court) is similar to the question whether a state should adopt so-called animal welfare laws. Colb argues that both the insanity defense and animal welfare measures provide the public with a sense of moral relief but only if we willfully ignore the reality of how animals and criminal defendants are treated.

When Criminal Defendants Tell You Who They Are

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses the rationale behind Federal Rule of Evidence 609, which allows for impeachment of criminal defendants’ testimony with prior convictions, and the seminal cases applying that rule. Colb explains why the jury’s reaction to evidence of prior convictions is both predictable and irrational.

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

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... 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

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... 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

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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