Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Law
Criminal Justice and the Problem of the In Between

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes the ambivalence and fear many of us feel toward the “in between”—the space between where we are today and where we imagine we could be. Professor Margulies points out that if we allow it, the fear of the in between will always keep us from the world we deserve, so we must find the courage to push past the fear.

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.

Why Prisons Are Criminogenic

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies argues that prisons increase rather than decrease the likelihood that a person will find himself back in prison because the scarcity on the inside of nearly everything valuable requires illicit behavior and rewards violence. Professor Margulies observes that scarcity of essential goods in prison, such as food, medical care, contact with loved ones, etc., all but demands active participation in ongoing criminality and encourages prisoners to develop and refine the capacity for violence.

It Is Not Too Early to Prepare for Life After the Abolition of Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes what death penalty abolitionists must do even as capital punishment in the United States wanes in popularity and use. Professor Sarat calls upon such advocates to invest time and resources in tracking and learning lessons from what has happened after states abolished the death penalty over the last 15 years.

Why California Should Abolish Its Death Penalty and Why It Matters What That State Does

Amherst professor Austin Sarat calls upon California Governor Gavin Newsom to ask the state legislature to end capital punishment. Professor Sarat explains why this route is superior to the direct democracy route (which failed in both 2012 and 2016) and why it’s so important that California abolish the death penalty.

Kyle Rittenhouse, SB8 and the Dangerous Legalization of Vigilante Justice

Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why the not guilty verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse sends a powerful message condoning vigilantism, particularly when coupled with the Texas law that authorizes private enforcement of its extreme prohibitions on abortion. Professor Sarat argues that vigilantism, including these instances, has historically taken root in times of social, cultural, and political transition, and in places with high levels of cultural diversity and institutional instability

Botched Executions Are a Feature, Not a Bug, in America’s Death Penalty System

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat points out that botched executions are commonplace in the United States and that their frequency has only increased during the last decade as states have experimented with different lethal injection drugs and drug combinations. Professor Sarat critiques the way journalists tend to cover these botched executions and argues that civil society needs to view these errors as routine, rather than as mistakes. The only way to break this pattern, he argues, is to stop altogether the practice of using death as a punishment.

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.

Supreme Court Poised to Put Boston Marathon Bomber Back on Death Row

Texas Law professor Jeffrey Abramson explains why the U.S. Supreme Court should not reinstate the death penalty for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, though a majority seemed poised to do just that when it heard oral arguments earlier this week. Professor Abramson argues that even this pro-death-penalty Supreme Court should see that when grievous mistakes are made at trial, as they were in Tsarnaev’s case, the defendant deserves a new death sentence hearing.

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.

Some Think Dylann Roof Deserves to Die, But Executing Him Lets Hatred Carry the Day

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat responds to a federal appellate court decision upholding the conviction and death sentence of Dylann Roof for the 2015 murders of nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a meeting of a Bible-study group. Professor Sarat argues that the death penalty is inappropriate even for one of this nation’s most reviled mass murderers because capital punishment has no place in a democratic society.

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 the American People Really Think About Capital Punishment

Amherst professor Austin Sarat critiques the conclusion of a study by Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College suggesting that the American public widely supports the death penalty. Professor Sarat points out that the study’s “sensationalist” questions are likely to elicit responses based on expectations of what the interviewer wants, rather than what respondents would do given the responsibility of deciding real cases in which a real person’s life is at stake.

#BillCosby Is Still #Guilty

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Bill Cosby’s conviction for the sexual assault of Andrea Constand. Professor Colb makes clear that the court’s actions in that case do not exonerate Bill Cosby; rather, it remains true that a jury of his peers convicted him of sexual assault based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Cosby Conviction Reversal Reveals a Faultline in Our Justice System for Sex Assault Victims: Unfairly Short Statutes of Limitation

Marci A. Hamilton, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA, comments on the recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturning Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction. Professor Hamilton argues that the decision illustrates the need for states to reform both civil and criminal statutes of limitations (SOLs) to give sexual assault and abuse survivors their day in court.

Justice Thomas Calls Out Liberals for Distinguishing Incarceration from Pregnancy

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb responds to an observation made by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence in his concurring opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, noting an ostensible inconsistency in the language liberals use in discussing incarceration, as compared to pregnancy. Professor Colb acknowledges the face value of Justice Thomas’s point—that liberals refer to minors seeking an abortion as “women” and minors facing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) as “children”—but she points out that the difference in terminology reflects a consistent view that minors are not fully developed and should not be forced to do irreversible “adult” things like carry a pregnancy to term or serve a mandatory LWOP sentence.

Pervis Payne’s Case Shines a Light on the Continuing Injustices of America’s Death Penalty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes three kinds of defects and injustices inherent in capital punishment exemplified by the case of Pervis Payne, who is on death row in Tennessee. Professor Sarat points out that the death penalty in the United States is built upon erroneous convictions and miscarriages of justice, the prejudicial use of use of so-called victim impact evidence, and disproportionate targeting of defendants with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.

International Criminal Court Authorizes Investigation Into Alleged War Crimes in Territory “Occupied” by Israel as a Result of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

NYU Law professor Samuel Estreicher and Hofstra Law professor Julian G. Ku comment on a recent decision by a Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruling that the ICC’s jurisdiction extends to territory occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, namely, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Professors Estreicher and Ku argue that the tenuous and legally unpersuasive nature of the ICC’s jurisdictional assertion in this case, as well as similarly aggressive findings over U.S. activities in Afghanistan, will only further weaken the tribunal’s overall international legitimacy going forward.

Lethal Injection’s Dreadful Failures: How States Are Trying to Normalize Accidents

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes ways in which states are attempting to normalize errors that occur during the process of lethal injection. Professor Sarat argues that lethal injection is demonstrably far from the painless form of death it once promised to be, and that it should be abolished in the United States.

Death Penalty Opponents Should Rethink Their Support for Life Without Parole Sentences

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—argues that life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP) are as problematic and damaging as the death penalty. For this reason, Professor Sarat calls upon death penalty opponents to reconsider their support for LWOP sentences.

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