Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Law
Trump’s Recent Calls to Execute Drug Traffickers Should Be a Wake-Up Call to the Biden Administration

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Donald Trump’s recently repeated calls to apply the death penalty to drug dealers. Professor Sarat points out that in 2020, only 30 people were executed worldwide for drug offenses (down from 116 in 2019), and they all occurred in China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—hardly the kind of examples that any nation committed to respecting human rights should want to emulate.

South Carolina Case Puts the Electric Chair and the Firing Squad on Trial

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a challenge to South Carolina’s plan to use the electric chair or the firing squad to carry out executions. Professor Sarat describes the conflicting expert testimony regarding the suffering involved in each method of execution and argues that instead of debating about the pain of the condemned, we should reject the premise that death is a punishment the government should even be using.

Oklahoma Wants to Try Yet Again to Execute Richard Glossip in a Case That Illustrates the Death Penalty’s Betrayal of American Values

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Oklahoma’s now-fourth attempt to carry out the execution of Richard Glossip. Professor Sarat argues that Glossip’s case illustrates the many ways in which the death penalty betrays America’s values and commitments and that all Americans should join in efforts to end it.

“Pro-Life”: Delta Variant

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb considers what it means for many of today’s anti-abortion advocates to criminalize not only abortion providers but the person seeking to obtain an abortion as well. Professor Colb argues that this latest iteration of the anti-abortion movement is about turning women into public property subject to rape and then to reproductive servitude for the community.

James Coddington’s Clemency Petition Offers a Chance to Recognize the Rehabilitation and Redemption of Death Row Inmates

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the clemency petition filed by Oklahoma death-row inmate James Coddington. Professor Sarat argues that, though unlikely to succeed based on Oklahoma’s history, Coddington’s petition offers the state the chance to revive a tradition of recognizing rehabilitation and redemption for people on death row.

On the Tenth Anniversary of Miller v. Alabama, Much Work Remains to End Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences

In light of 2022 marking the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out how important that decision was and how much still remains to be done to stop juvenile life without parole (LWOP) sentences. Professor Sarat points out that with the scientific recognition that the development of the human brain is not complete until a person is in their 20s, it does not make sense to treat child offenders the same way we treat adult offenders.

Judicial Deference and the Future of Lethal Injection

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent decision by a federal district court judge deferring to the evidence provided by the state in support of its lethal injection procedure, despite significant contradictory evidence. Professor Sarat argues that the trilogy of Supreme Court precedents on lethal injection not only altered the legal standards but tilted the playing field for fact-finding when death row inmates bring lethal injection challenges.

A New Answer to an Old Question

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why, when asked how he can defend someone accused of horrible crimes, he no longer uses the response that most criminal defense lawyers use—that a lawyer doesn’t defend their client’s behavior but instead holds the government to its burden by zealously defending their client’s rights. Instead, Professor Margulies responds to that question that he is defending the client’s humanity against society’s impulse to reduce a defendant to their deed, imprisoning them in their past.

What Happened?

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the language we use—particularly the language we use to describe and talk with incarcerated persons—is unduly limiting and focused on a singular event to the exclusion of broader context. Professor Margulies proposes that rather than asking “What did you do?” we should ask “What happened?”—which is a wider question that wonders, with curiosity and compassion, what factors, perhaps over months, years, or even generations, brought a human being to this place.

Aborted Tennessee Execution Highlights Lethal Injection’s Crippling Problems Part One in a Series

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Tennessee’s recent last-minute cancellation of the execution of Oscar Franklin Smith for a “technical oversight.” Professor Sarat points out that such problems typically mean that state officials identified contamination in the compounded execution drugs or the “use by date” had passed, but the veil of secrecy surrounding executions prevents the public from discovering the true nature of the problem.

Building a Forgiving Society

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes a society in which no transgression is so severe that society dissolves the bonds that connect all of humanity by its very nature. Professor Margulies points out that we live in an age when demonization is a first impulse rather than a last resort, and the inclination to treat a fellow human being as irredeemably unworthy of membership is, for many people, irresistibly seductive.

Living in Capital Punishment Limbo

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes the current state of capital punishment in the United States, in particular, the 27 states that authorize death sentences but have not actually carried out an execution in the last five or ten years. Professor Sarat argues that this limbo for death row inmates causes unnecessary suffering and reflects an appropriate reluctance to kill in the name of the state.

New Federal Law Reminds Americans of What Lynching Really Means

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how politicians have misused the term “lynching” for their own political purposes, thereby threatening to dilute its meaning. Professor Sarat praises President Biden for signing into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act and calls upon the president and Attorney General Merrick Garland to use its historic passage to put the full weight of the federal government behind efforts to stem the epidemic of hate crimes plaguing this country.

An Ex-U.S. Attorney Cuts to the Chase About Prosecuting Trump. Is Attorney General Garland Doing the Same?

Harvard Law professor Laurence H. Tribe and former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut comment on the model prosecution memo that former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade recently published describing how to indict former President Donald Trump for his criminal actions with respect to the 2020 presidential election. Professor Tribe and Mr. Aftergut explain why the memo is so effective, how it should influence Attorney General Merrick Garland, and why seeking an indictment is critical to preventing future lawless action.

“Hear No Evil, See No Evil,” State Responses to Botched Executions and the Danger of Indifference

Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that many death penalty states have developed coordinated strategies of reassuring the public and denying any wrongdoing when an execution goes wrong. Professor Sarat points out that state officials demonstrate an indifference to an inmate’s evident distress and use empty, bureaucratic language to cover their tracks and avoid confronting the grim reality of what they are doing.

No More Prison Success Tokenism

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why stories of people who serve extensive sentences in prison and then turn around to do wonderful things set an impossible standard for others who equally deserve freedom yet cannot demonstrate such achievements. Professor Margulies argues that hundreds of thousands of men and women are serving impossibly long terms, and they, too, deserve to be free by virtue of the change they have inevitably undergone through their years behind bars.

Why Conservatives Are Seeing the Light on Capital Punishment and Why They Should

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes recent developments in Utah and Ohio, where conservative legislators have introduced bills that would end capital punishment in those states. Professor Sarat explains why, although conservatives have historically favored capital punishment, opposing it is more consistent with other conservative values, like opposing abortion.

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

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 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