Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why the plan by a coalition of death penalty opponents in Nebraska to put the death penalty on the ballot is a risky strategy. Professor Sarat points out that important and successful work that death penalty abolitionists have recently done to reframe the debates about capital punishment has not yet succeeded in the electoral arena, and history suggests that death penalty abolition is more likely to come from the top down than it is from the bottom up.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on recent news that Republican legislators in four Southern states have proposed legislation that would make abortion a capital offense in those states. Professor Sarat and Mr. Aftergut point out the hypocrisy and cruelty of so-called “pro-lifers” advocating the death penalty for those who seek—and those who assist others in seeking—an abortion.
Cornell professor Joseph Margulies argues that the only condition that justifies a prison sentence longer than 20 years is an ongoing threat to public safety, to be determined after that sentence has been served. Professor Margulies points out that, contrary to what many people think, individuals convicted of some of the most serious offenses, and who have already served exceptionally long terms, are often the people who are most apt to be valuable and contributing members of society, and who are best prepared for freedom.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent changes in Oklahoma that suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that the state may be poised to abolish the death penalty. Professor Sarat observes that the 2022 election results, the objections of religious leaders, doubts among conservative politicians, and declining public support may signal a tide change in a state that has long been a leader in using death as a punishment.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week in Cruz v. Arizona, in which a 5-4 majority of the Court delivered a rare victory to a capital defendant. Professor Dorf describes the circuitous path Cruz’s case took and how it highlights an inadequacy in the standard for viewing the “adequacy” of state law grounds for denying federal judicial intervention.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on two cases currently working their way through the Arizona court system, in which defense lawyers from the Capital Unit of the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender are raising innovative arguments based on the systemic racism in all aspects of American life. Professor Sarat argues that these carefully crafted and extensively documented motions call on judges to confront the reality of America’s racist past and continuing institutional racism before allowing the government to carry out any more “legal lynchings.”
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.
Cornell professor of government Joseph Margulies describes the conundrum of reconciling the fact that prison sentences over 20 years are generally pointlessly cruel and unjust with the fury we feel against those who commit senseless mass murders. In particular Professor Margulies points to a new report by The Sentencing Project in support of their longstanding campaign to reduce the maximum prison sentence in the United States to 20 years, released on the same day that Erie County, New York, Judge Susan Eagan sentenced Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron to ten concurrent life sentences plus an additional 25 years to be served consecutively.
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.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the Memphis police officers who beat Tyre Nichols to death were doing exactly what the SCORPION unit of the department was supposed to do. Professor Margulies argues that until we collectively quash the belief that “we” are threatened until “they” are brought to heel, society will futilely pursue public safety while disregarding public suffering.
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.
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.
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.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes the crucial difference between a world where we ask, “What happened?” and one where we ask, “Who is to blame?” Professor Margulies explains that the first question seeks to identify the many factors that cause something bad to happen, with the goal of preventing that bad thing from happening again; in contrast, the second seeks only to punish.
Criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Jon May describes the similarities and differences between the possession of classified documents by former President Trump and President Biden. Mr. May argues that neither is likely to lead to charges based on federal criminal statutes, but for vastly different reasons.
Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes the work of the Cornell University Parole Initiative (CUPI), which works with incarcerated persons serving life sentences in New York prisons. Professor Margulies describes the work of CUPI student volunteers and argues that anyone who perceives today’s young people as entitled “snowflakes” should look more closely at what young people are doing and get out of the way for them to fix what older generations have broken.
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.
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.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf reflects on what we might learn about criminal justice systems from FTX co-founder and former CEO Sam Bankman-Fried and his brief stay in a Bahamian prison. Professor Dorf points out that the prison where Bankman-Fried was detained has been described as “not fit for humanity”—not unlike many prisons in the United States and elsewhere. He argues that no one—regardless of wealth or social status—deserves that kind of suffering on top of their term of imprisonment.
Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comments on Monday’s news that the January 6 committee approved criminal referrals for former President Donald Trump, John Eastman, and others. Mr. Aftergut argues that consistent prosecution and conviction of those who engage in political violence—not only those who participated on January 6, but also those who have done so afterwards—are vital to deterring future disorder.