Analysis and Commentary on Criminal Law
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.

Alabama’s Execution of Matthew Reeves Signals Methods of Execution Mess in the U.S.

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow Alabama to execute Matthew Reeves, an intellectually disabled death row inmate, by lethal injection rather than by his preferred method of nitrogen hypoxia. Professor Sarat explains why giving death row inmates a choice over their “preferred” method of execution is perverse and argues that the words “humane” and “execution” do not belong in the same sentence, no matter what method is used.

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.

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