Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Procedure
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.

How to Detect a Liar

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb responds to a colleague’s claim (yet unconfirmed) that jurors have an easier time distinguishing truth from falsehood when they read a transcript of testimony than when they listen to and watch the testimony directly. Assuming the claim is true, Colb describes why that claim might at first be surprising and also why, on further consideration, it makes sense. She proposes that if the claim is true, we ought perhaps to consider whether the distractors inherent in live testimony should excludable under the Federal Rules of Evidence.

Is Physical Liberty an Important Right?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a decision the U.S. Supreme Court issued toward the end of the last term, in which a majority of the Court ruled that as long as police have probable cause for an arrest, it does not matter if their actual motivation for arresting someone violates the person’s First Amendment rights. Colb considers whether such pretextual, speech-based arrests are a problem, how they differ from other pretextual arrests, and how the ruling in this case resembles the law of a seemingly different area—post-conviction incarceration for convicted criminals.

The Court That Cried “Exigency”

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb and George R. El-Khoury, JD, comment on a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last month applying the “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement to permit the admission in evidence of a blood-alcohol test administered on an unconscious driver. Colb and El-Khoury describe some of the problems with using the exigent circumstances exception to arrive at the result in this case and propose some alternative approaches that might yield the same outcome but for stronger reasons.

Does the Constitution Require the Insanity Defense?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses a question the U.S. Supreme Court will consider next term—whether the U.S. Constitution prohibits a state’s abolition of the insanity defense. Colb points out the various ways in which our current criminal justice system arbitrarily excuses some sources of criminal conduct but not others, and she argues that because of these inconsistencies already inherent in the system, the insanity defense cannot logically be required.

A Welcome Turn to Violence

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes several refreshing perspectives in the area of criminal justice reform that tackle the crucial and difficult issue of violent crime. By way of background, Margulies explains the simplistic and erroneous idea that drives the enormous (and enormously expensive) carceral state and explains the importance of recognizing humanity in order to begin to dismantle it.

Should Police Need a Search Warrant to Chalk Tires and Discover Illegal Parking?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a recent decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit holding unconstitutional the use of chalk by police officers to track whether a parked car has remained longer than permissible. Colb considers whether the decision—which seems to faithfully apply the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Jones v. United States and Florida v. Jardines—falls short of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test the Court established in Katz v. United States. Colb proposes a test that instead combines trespass, information-gathering, as well as some privacy interest in that information, arguing that such a test would better reflect the scope of the Fourth Amendment.

Supreme Court Takes a Case About Jury Unanimity

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a case in which the US Supreme Court recently granted review, Ramos v. Louisiana, which presents the question whether states may permit conviction of an accused criminal on less than a unanimous jury voting “guilty.” Colb explains the doctrine of incorporation—by which most provisions of the Bill of Rights are held to be applicable as against the states as well as the federal government through the Fourteenth Amendment—and explains the possible significance of a unanimous jury verdict.

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 Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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