Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Law
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.

God’s Enduring Irony

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies considers the notion of equality and human nature, challenging the idea that monstrous actions make individuals fundamentally different from the rest of society. Professor Margulies argues that recognizing our shared capacity for brutality underscores that even those who commit heinous acts are not inherently “other” and should be held accountable as members of our collective humanity, rather than being cast out or labeled as fundamentally different.

Supreme Court’s Hands-Off Attitude Contributes to Growing Public Doubts about the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat reflects on the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, which highlights both progress in abolishing capital punishment in the U.S. and the Supreme Court’s reluctance to ensure fairness in death penalty cases. Professor Sarat argues that the Supreme Court’s diminishing role in scrutinizing death penalty cases and its tolerance for injustice in these matters may be contributing to growing public skepticism about the death penalty, evidenced by increasing support among lawmakers and the public for its repeal or limitation.

Massachusetts Governor Offers a New Way of Thinking about Crime, Justice, and Clemency

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey’s introduction of new guidelines aimed at reshaping the clemency process in the state, emphasizing mercy and addressing structural inequities in the criminal justice system. Professor Sarat praises Governor Healey’s approach as aligning with historical views on clemency and seeking to correct systemic wrongs, promote equity, and recognize individual growth and rehabilitation, despite the prevailing reluctance of many governors to grant clemency for fear of appearing lenient on crime.

What the First Guilty Plea in Trump’s Georgia Prosecution Tells Us About DA Willis’s Strategy

Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut discusses Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s legal strategy in her case against Donald Trump and various co-defendants for an alleged conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. Mr. Aftergut observes that Willis seems to be focusing on securing guilty pleas from less central co-conspirators to strengthen her case against major defendants like Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, and Sidney Powell, while potentially offering lesser charges to those willing to cooperate and testify, thereby avoiding the risk of revealing too much of her case before a full trial.

#MeToo and Good Character Evidence: The Possibility of #MeToo-Informed Leniency Letters

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler delves into the ethical complexities of writing leniency letters in sexual assault cases, particularly when informed by the #MeToo movement. Professor Wexler argues that while society should be forgiving, as Verdict co-columnist Joe Margulies suggests, leniency letters can often perpetuate “himpathy,” where the judge might overempathize with the defendant—especially if white and otherwise privileged—at the expense of the victim, and that these letters should carefully avoid reinforcing tropes rooted in structural misogyny and American rape culture.

#Metoo and Good Character Evidence: The Possibility of #MeToo Informed Leniency Letters

In this first of a series of columns, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler explores the ethical and societal complexities surrounding character letters in sex crimes trials, particularly focusing on the controversy created by Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’s leniency letters for Danny Masterson. Professor Wexler delves into the historical role and changing public sentiment about character evidence, referencing military court cases and the Brock Turner trial, and questions whether it is possible to write a leniency letter that aligns with #MeToo values without undermining victims or perpetuating harmful myths.

Mr. Menendez is Presumed Innocent. Senator Menendez is Not.

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the indictment against New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who is accused of accepting bribes to influence foreign relations and other matters. Professor Dorf acknowledges the legal presumption of innocence in a criminal trial setting but argues that due to the ethical responsibility Senators have towards their constituents and the country, they are not entitled to the same presumption in their role, and the weight of the allegations and evidence against Menendez should prompt his resignation or expulsion from the Senate.

2023 Has Brought Mixed News for Death Penalty Abolitionists

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that the push for death penalty abolition in the United States faced a year of mixed outcomes in 2023, marked by a rise in executions but also legislative progress in some states like Washington. Professor Sarat observes that states like Alabama and South Carolina are making efforts to proceed with executions using new methods or secured drug supplies, Ohio and Tennessee have shown more cautious or progressive stances, signaling an incremental and complex journey toward abolition.

What Precisely Did Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis Do Wrong?

Cornell professor Joseph Margulies discusses the controversy surrounding Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis writing character letters in support of their friend and fellow actor Danny Masterson, who was convicted of rape. Professor Margulies argues that while Kutcher and Kunis should be allowed to plead for “social forgiveness” for Masterson, they crossed a line by encouraging the judge to doubt the jury’s verdict; the challenge lies in how society can adopt a more forgiving attitude without diminishing the severity of wrongdoings.

The Answer to the Judge’s New Question in Mark Meadows’s Removal of his Georgia Indictment

Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut argues that in deciding whether Mark Meadows’s case should be tried in federal court, the judge should apply a “totality of the circumstances” test—which would result in the case being remanded to state court. Mr. Aftergut points out that this approach would weigh all of Meadows’s actions, rather than focusing on a single official act, thereby accommodating competing legal and social values.

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 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

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