Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Law
Arizona Takes a Step Toward Abolishing the Death Penalty

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.

What Ann Coulter Doesn’t Know and Doesn’t Want Her Readers to Know About Capital Punishment

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.

Imagine We Lived in a Different World

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.

Neither Biden nor Trump Will Be Charged with any Unlawful Conduct Resulting from Their Possession of Classified Documents, but for Very Different Reasons

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.

No Snowflakes Here: The Cornell University Parole Initiative

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.

Arizona Is a New Death Penalty Battleground State

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.

As America’s Death Penalty Declines, Let’s Not Lose Sight of the Glaring Injustices That Remain

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.

Lessons from Sam Bankman-Fried’s Brief Stay in a Bahamian Jail

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.

Merrick Garland Stays on Offense Against Trumpist Violence

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.

It is Time for the Biden Administration to Join the Rest of the World in Moving Against the Death Penalty

Amherst professor Austin Sarat argues that the Biden administration should join the rest of the world in officially opposing the death penalty by supporting the U.N. General Assembly’s resolution establishing a moratorium on executions. Professor Sarat points out that while supporting the resolution would not force the federal or state governments to change the status quo, it would put this country on record as committed to ending the death penalty—a particularly important accomplishment for a President who ran as an abolitionist.

SCOTUS Should Revisit Demeanor’s Role in the Courtroom

UConn School of Law professor Julia Simon-Kerr comments on a case that squarely presents the question whether the courtroom demeanor and body language of a non-testifying defendant can play a role in the jury’s consideration of guilt or innocence. Professor Simon-Kerr points out that despite research showing no evidence that we can learn much, if anything, about a person’s untruthfulness from nonverbal cues, jurors frequently rely on those factors in deciding the credibility of witnesses and, apparently, even the culpability of non-testifying defendants. She suggests that it although it is unlikely the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, the case presents the Court with a unique opportunity to begin a long overdue reexamination of the privileged role of demeanor in our system of proof.

What the Weinstein Jury’s Lengthy Deliberation Does (and Doesn’t) Mean

Texas Law professor Jeffrey Abramson comments on the trial of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein, in which the jury has been deliberating since December 2 without reaching a verdict. Professor Abramson suggests that the jury may simply be working its way through the five weeks of testimony, and the only takeaway from the amount of time it is taking is that the justice system is working.

Why the United States Faces an Uphill Battle Convicting Donald Trump for Unlawfully Removing Government Documents From the White House and Concealing Them at Mar-a-Lago

Attorney Jon May discusses what offenses former President Donald Trump is likely to be charged with, and why the government may fail to convict him for any of those offenses. Specifically, Mr. May addresses the issues with each of the three statutes listed on the search warrant authorizing the search of Mar-a-Lago.

The Defense and a Special Prosecutor Agree About Unfairness in a Missouri Capital Case: Will That Be Enough to Stop an Execution?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a Missouri capital case in which both the defense lawyer and a special prosecutor appointed to review the case agree that unconstitutional racial bias played a crucial role in the handling of the case. Professor Sarat points out that such agreement is very unusual and that it thus falls to the Missouri Supreme Court to halt the execution so that the issues they have raised can be thoroughly investigated, or else allow the execution to go forward in a move that is perilously close to the state supreme court acquiescing in a lynching.

With America’s Death Penalty, New Evidence Shows that Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent report by National Public Radio (NPR) that the more people know about the death penalty, the less they support its use. Professor Sarat points out that people closely involved with executions tend to change their opinions to oppose capital punishment due to a “profound sense of shame or guilt” that they experience.

The United States v. Donald J. Trump: The Prosecution of a National Security Case

Attorney Jon May predicts that within the next six months, former President Donald Trump will be indicted for violating the Espionage Act arising from his possession of classified documents after he left the White House. Mr. May describes some of the challenges that potentially classified evidence poses for both Trump’s defense and for the prosecution.

Ohio Plans to Execute a Man It Knows Is Innocent—Why?

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Anthony Apanovitch—a man on Ohio’s death row who was exonerated yet whom the state still plans to execute. Professor Sarat describes Apanovitch’s unique situation and calls upon the Ohio Parole Board to recommend to Ohio’s governor that Apanovitch be pardoned and set free.

Alabama’s Plan to Execute Kenneth Smith May Be Legal, But It Is Not Just

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Kenneth Smith, whom Alabama plans to execute by lethal injection on November 17 based on a judge’s decision overriding a jury’s determination that he be sentenced to life in prison rather than death. Professor Sarat explains why such judicial override cases are so unjust, particularly given that Alabama has repealed judicial override (but not retroactively).

The Supreme Court’s Cold Indifference in Alabama Death Penalty Case

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Alabama’s recent aborted execution of Alan Miller. Professor Sarat describes how the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Miller’s execution to go forward despite a serious dispute about whether Miller submitted a form electing an execution method other than lethal injection.

Parkland Case Challenges Us All to Figure Out What a Mass Murderer Deserves

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the ongoing sentencing trial of Nikolas Cruz, who in 2018 murdered fourteen students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Professor Sarat explains the difficulty and complexity of having to decide what punishment an offender deserves—let alone someone guilty of perpetrating such an atrocity—particularly when it is a question of capital punishment or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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

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

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