Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Law
Should Prosecutors Worry About Having Jewish People on Capital Juries?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the systematic exclusion of Jewish people from death penalty juries in Alameda County, California, and explores Jewish perspectives on capital punishment. Professor Sarat argues that while Jewish religious texts mention capital punishment, rabbinical interpretations and Jewish history have made many Jews wary of the death penalty, and the discriminatory practices in Alameda County highlight the need to end capital punishment altogether.

What Oklahoma Did to Clayton Lockett Ten Years Ago Changed the National Conversation About Botched Executions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in 2014 and how it marked a turning point in the public perception of capital punishment. Professor Sarat argues that the repeated failures and mistakes in the death penalty system, exemplified by Lockett’s execution and the disproportionate impact on Black individuals, have undermined the moral justification for capital punishment and strengthened the case for abolition.

Black People Pay a High Price for this Country’s Illusory Pursuit of Humane Executions

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the history of execution methods in the United States and the recent findings from a Reprieve report showing that lethal injection executions of Black inmates are botched at a much higher rate than those of White inmates. Professor Sarat argues that this racial disparity in botched executions is unsurprising given the pervasive racist stereotypes and unequal treatment of Black bodies throughout American society, from schools to policing to healthcare, and reflects the illusory nature of the quest for a humane execution method.

The Cruelty of Punishment Without Purpose

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the recent execution of Brian Dorsey by the state of Missouri and explores the question whether executing a rehabilitated prisoner violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Professor Sarat argues that Dorsey’s execution served no legitimate penological purpose because he had been successfully rehabilitated during his time in prison, and therefore his execution amounted to cruel punishment without a justifiable purpose.

Judges, Heretics, and Capital Punishment

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies comments on Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s request to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to slow down the pace of executions and Judge Gary Lumpkin’s critical response to that request. Professor Margulies suggests that Judge Lumpkin’s hostility towards Drummond’s motion is not merely due to moral insensitivity, but is an ideological attempt to admonish Drummond for perceived deviation from the staunchly pro-death penalty stance expected of his office, exemplifying the “black sheep effect” of harshly policing in-group boundaries.

California Prosecutor Seeks Sentence Reductions for Death Row Inmates. Other Prosecutors Should Follow Suit

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the recent unprecedented request by Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen to resentence all death row inmates from his county, highlighting the critical role prosecutors play as gatekeepers in the death penalty system. Professor Sarat argues that Rosen’s actions, driven by concerns about racial bias and changing attitudes towards capital punishment, serve as an important example for other prosecutors to follow in order to right past wrongs and ensure justice is upheld, regardless of how much time has passed.

Delaying Trump’s Trials Is What Savvy Democrats Should Have Wanted All Along

Law professor and economist Neil H. Buchanan discusses the conventional wisdom that delays in Donald Trump’s legal cases benefit him politically, as Trump hopes to win the 2024 election before facing legal consequences. However, Professor Buchanan argues that these delays actually help President Joe Biden and the Democrats, and that convictions prior to the election would not significantly harm Trump’s political chances, making the delays the best realistic outcome for those who oppose Trump.

The Execution of Ivan Cantu Is a Reminder of Why We Execute the Innocent and Always Will

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the execution of Ivan Cantu in Texas, using it as a case study to explore the broader issue of innocent individuals being executed in the United States. Professor Sarat argues that the continued use of the death penalty inevitably leads to the execution of innocent people, underscoring the urgent need to abolish capital punishment to prevent such irreversible injustices.

Another Botched Lethal Injection, Another Official Refusal to Accept Responsibility for Failure in the Execution Process

Amherst professor Austin Sarat examines the recent failed execution attempt of Thomas Eugene Creech in Idaho, highlighting lethal injection’s history of unreliability and the broader context of its use as an execution method in the United States. Professor Sarat argues that systemic issues and denial by state officials perpetuate the cruelty and inefficiency of lethal injections, urging an acknowledgment of its failures and a cessation of its use for capital punishment.

Alabama Should Not Be Allowed to Carry Out Another Nitrogen Hypoxia Execution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a lawsuit filed by David Phillip Wilson, currently on Alabama’s death row for a 2004 murder, claiming that Alabama’s plan to execute him by nitrogen gas violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Professor Sarat notes the state’s problematic history with gas executions and the recent painful, 22-minute execution of Kenneth Smith by nitrogen gas, and argues that Wilson’s lawsuit makes a compelling case that nitrogen hypoxia presents a substantial risk of severe pain and suffering.

The Gas Chamber, 100 Years of Cruelty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the 100-year history of gas chamber executions in the United States, highlighting the method’s failure to provide a humane and reliable form of capital punishment despite initial claims, and marking the recent revival of its use in Alabama as a continuation of this problematic legacy. Professor Sarat details the origins and implementation of gas chambers, including the first execution of Gee Jon in Nevada and the various adaptations states made over the years, culminating in a critique of lethal gas as an inhumane method that has consistently resulted in torture and botched executions.

Oklahoma’s New Execution Plan Highlights the Magnitude of America’s Death Penalty Problems

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the proposal by Oklahoma’s Attorney General and the Director of the Department of Corrections to execute execute six individuals with 90-day intervals between each, in a purported effort to address operational and mental health strains on execution team members. Professor Sarat points out that this plan fails to address deeper injustices within the death penalty system, not the least of which is the significant toll on those involved in executions, as well as the systemic issues of unfair trials and racial bias affecting death row inmates.

Tragedy, Foresight and the Carceral State

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies discusses the groundbreaking prosecution for involuntary manslaughter of Jennifer and James Crumbley, parents of Ethan Crumbley, who killed four classmates in a school mass shooting. Professor Margulies highlights legal and moral complexities surrounding causation and parental responsibility, questioning whether the parents’ negligence in not foreseeing their son’s violent actions, despite clear warning signs, justifies holding them criminally liable for the murders. Professor Margulies also reflects on the broader implications for societal expectations of parental foresight and the limits of criminal law in addressing such tragic events.

Should Death Penalty Abolitionists Try to Make the Death Penalty More Humane?

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the recent execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith by nitrogen hypoxia in Alabama, questioning the humanity of this method and comparing it unfavorably to other methods like lethal injection and electrocution. Professor Dorf delves into the complexities of the death penalty, including the constitutional implications, the effectiveness of alternative execution methods, and the ethical dilemmas facing death penalty abolitionists and pharmaceutical companies regarding the provision of more humane execution drugs.

Another New Execution Method, Another Botched Execution

Amherst professor Austin Sarat laments the continued occurrence of botched executions in the United States, focusing on the recent introduction of nitrogen hypoxia in Alabama, which resulted in another failed attempt. Professor Sarat describes the disturbing details of Kenneth Smith’s execution, where the promise of a quick and painless death by nitrogen hypoxia was broken, leading to a prolonged and torturous process, thus adding to the history of failed executions with new methods in the United States.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Takes an Important Step in the Battle to End Life Without Parole Sentences

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses the movement against life without parole (LWOP) sentences in the United States, highlighting its flaws similar to those in the death penalty system, including racial disparities and the finality of judgment. Professor Sarat commends the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling against LWOP for offenders under 21, signaling a significant step towards reevaluating and potentially ending LWOP sentences, paralleling efforts against capital punishment.

The Road Not Taken: In 2023 Two Death Penalty States Offer Americans a Clear Choice

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the divergent paths of Florida and Ohio with respect to capital punishment in those states. Professor Sarat argues that it is time for America to make up its mind on the death penalty and either follow Ohio’s path toward a future without capital punishment, bringing this country into line with the community of nations, or else follow Florida’s example by expanding death sentences and executions.

Utah Judge Clears the Way for the First Firing Squad Execution in More Than a Decade

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Ralph Leroy Menzies, who has been on Utah’s death row for 35 years and holds conflicting views on his execution: he insists on being executed by firing squad, yet argues that this method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under Utah’s constitution. Professor Sarat discusses Utah District Judge Coral Sanchez’s ruling that the state could proceed with the execution by firing squad, dismissing Menzies’s argument and granting the state significant discretion in carrying out the execution, even if it cannot guarantee a painless death.

Alabama Acknowledges Dangers of Nitrogen Hypoxia Executions But Wants to Carry One Out Anyway

Amherst professor Austin Sarat discusses Alabama’s plan to use nitrogen hypoxia for the first time in the execution of Kenneth Smith, raising concerns about its safety and humanity. The method has prompted criticism, including a lawsuit by Reverend Jeff Hood, who argues that Alabama’s requirement for him to maintain distance during the execution infringes on religious liberties and creates a hostile environment for spiritual advisers. Professor Sarat highlights the untested nature of nitrogen hypoxia, its potential for causing seizures and suffocation, and the broader ethical issues surrounding the continued search for a “humane” method of execution.

Going to the Altar: Lisa Sarnoff Gochman’s Book on the Supreme Court

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin recounts her experience reading At the ALTAR of the Appellate Gods: Arguing before the US Supreme Court by Lisa Sarnoff Gochman. Amidst a tragic backdrop of recent violence at UNLV, Professor Griffin reflects on Gochman’s book, which provides a human perspective on appellate law through her experience arguing in the notable Supreme Court case, Apprendi v. New Jersey. As Professor Griffin describes, Gochman’s narrative highlights the challenges and intricacies of presenting a case before the Supreme Court, offering insights into the legal process and the personal journey of an appellate lawyer.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is a Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law and a Professor... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, is a visiting professor at both Osgoode Hall... 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 Dwight D. Opperman Professor of Law and Director of the Center of Labor and... 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 Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in... 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