Analysis and Commentary on Human Rights
It’s Time to End the Inhumanity of Confinement on America’s Death Rows

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent report by the advocacy group, the Legal Defense Fund, noting that the total number of people on death row is 3.6% lower than it was a year ago, and 35% lower than it was in 2001 when the death row population was at its peak. However, Professor Sarat highlights the inhumanity of allowing even this reduced number of people—indeed, anyone—to languish for years or decades on death row.

Of Mugshots and Burning Cells

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies comments on two seemingly unrelated concerns expressed by readers: the policy of a local sheriff in Florida to publish mugshots of juveniles who have been charged with a felony, and the oppressively hot conditions of prison cells in Texas. Professor Margulies explains that both of these problems are products of an unforgiving society that insists on differentiating people into “us” versus “them.”

Oregon Case Reaffirms Both Breadth of the Clemency Power and the Primacy of Politics in Controlling Its Exercise

Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a recent case in which the Oregon Court of Appeals held that Governor Kate Brown had the legal authority to grant mass clemency to more than 1,000 people convicted of crimes in her state. Professor Sarat points out that the decision joins a long line of others affirming the authority of governors and the President of the United States to grant clemency for “good reason, bad reason or no reason at all.”

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.

Social Media and Social Forgiveness

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why social media is, by design, inimical to the idea of a forgiving society. He points out that, in general, we appreciate that a person makes choices not in a vacuum, but in the context of a combination of individual and societal factors, but social media eliminates this nuance and forces us to ignore what we ordinarily accept as the lesson of universal experience.

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.

“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.

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.

Prisoners Should Not Be Used as Human Guinea Pigs in COVID-19 Cultural Wars

Amherst professor Austin Sarat responds to recent news that officials in Arkansas’s Washington County Detention Center have been administering ivermectin to prison inmates without their knowledge or consent. Professor Sarat argues that this coercive and unethical practice effectively treats them as human guinea pigs, violating their dignity and autonomy in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Private Transitional Justice—The Case of the Slave Daguerreotypes

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler comments on a case in which a Massachusetts court affirmed Harvard’s ownership over several slave daguerreotypes despite the horrific and now criminal conditions under which the pictures were taken. Professor Wexler argues that the double injustice of mistreating enslaved people and using them to prove a theory of their lesser-than status calls for application of transitional justice principles, not ordinary law.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part IV—Assessing the U.S. Response

In this fourth in a series of columns about the U.S. military drone strike in Kabul that killed ten civilians (including seven children), Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler considers whether the United States has now satisfactorily provided the recommended amends and discusses what more ought to be done. As to what more is needed, Professor Wexler suggests congressional review of the incident, chain of command accountability decisions, and a broader review of drone strikes.

Rejecting Vaccination Status Discrimination: Learning from the Laws of War

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler argues that a just society should not punish unvaccinated persons in the allocation of even scarce medical care and resources, despite the exceptional circumstances of a global pandemic. In support of this position, Professor Wexler analogizes to the exceptional circumstances of war, pointing out that the laws of war also emphatically reject status discrimination in medical decision-making.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part III—Making Amends

In this third and final part of a series of columns on the Kabul drone strike in August that killed numerous civilians, Illinois Law professors Lesley M. Wexler and Jennifer K. Robbennolt suggest a robust approach to making amends for the victims of lawful harm imposed during drone strikes and other military uses of force. Professors Wexler and Robbennolt note the substantial support for various aspects of amends from many key stakeholders, including the victims and their families, members of the military who suffer moral injury as a result of the killings, and even the U.S.’s military objectives, which often rely on winning the hearts and minds of local populations.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part II—Condolence and Solatia Payments

In this second of a three-part series of columns on the Kabul drone strike in August that killed numerous civilians, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler addresses the U.S. approach to voluntary condolence and solatia payments. Professor Wexler explains what these payments require and how they often fall short, and she points out the gulf between commitments to making condolence and solatia payments and payments actually made.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part I—Detecting Mistakes and No Required Reparations

In this first of a three-part series of columns on the Kabul drone strike in August that killed numerous civilians, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler raises two key concerns: that civil society rather than the government brought the mistake to light, and that there is no legal requirement to pay reparations. Professor Wexler describes the reasons behind our reliance on journalists and civil society to investigate problems like this strike and explains the relevant laws of war that allow the victims’ families to go uncompensated.

Simone Biles’s Perfect Score

Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy and survivor of child sexual abuse, praises gymnast Simone Biles for setting a stellar example of courage and self-care. Robb points out that as a result of Biles’s actions, USA Gymnastics may have lost a team gold medal, but more importantly, future young elite athletes and children worldwide observed the actions of a hero.

#FreeBritney and Believe Women

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler comments on Britney Spears’s petition to end her conservatorship and explains how her situation reflects general attitudes about believing women. Professor Wexler argues that the #FreeBritney movement may shape emerging norms of believability, which is often a precondition to convincing judges, jurors, co-workers, friends, and others in society about both the existence of abuse and its impact on its victims.

Should Vegans “Force” Their Children to Be Vegan?

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a recent interview in which actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is vegan, said that he would not “force” his nine-month-old son River to be vegan, though he hoped he would be. Professor Colb explores why the question and his answer have provoked strong responses among vegan activists and offers an alternative understanding of his statement that supports, rather than undermines, veganism.

Pervis Payne’s Case Shines a Light on the Continuing Injustices of America’s Death Penalty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes three kinds of defects and injustices inherent in capital punishment exemplified by the case of Pervis Payne, who is on death row in Tennessee. Professor Sarat points out that the death penalty in the United States is built upon erroneous convictions and miscarriages of justice, the prejudicial use of use of so-called victim impact evidence, and disproportionate targeting of defendants with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.

What’s in a Name? Genocide, Torture, Eugenics, Taxes, and Humpty Dumpty

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent news that President Joseph Biden is using the word “genocide” to describe the Turkish regime’s murder of roughly 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I. Professor Dorf explains why language matters in the context of genocide, torture, eugenics, taxes, and Humpty Dumpty.

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

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more