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.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on a decision by a federal district court in Louisiana denying a preliminary injunction in a case involving death row inmates seeking clemency. Professor Sarat criticizes the court’s narrow interpretation of the governor’s directive regarding clemency hearings, arguing that it exemplifies a legalistic approach that disregards the broader context and intention of the governor’s actions.
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.
erst professor Austin Sarat comments on the case of Gerald Pizzuto, whom the state of Idaho has sought to execute by lethal injection five times since his 1986 conviction for first-degree murder. Professor Sarat points out that U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who ruled in Pizzuto’s case, recognized the inherent psychological cruelty of capital punishment, particularly when it involves repeated rescheduling of execution dates.
Cornell professor Joseph Margulies reflects on two recent high-profile legal events: the indictment of Donald Trump for allegedly subverting democracy and the death sentencing of Robert Bowers for the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Professor Margulies suggests that these cases, viewed by many as a triumph for the rule of law, represent societal attempts to protect integral aspects of American identity, with their punishment seen as purging threats to this identity. However, Professor Margulies argues that the law should not be weaponized to decide who belongs in society, as it usurps an authority that rightfully belongs to the people.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on an announcement last March by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards that he opposed capital punishment and points out that now Governor Edwards has the opportunity to prove his opposition. Professor Sarat argues that Governor Edwards should use his authority to order the Board of Pardons to hold hearings on the death row clemency petitions and review them on their merits to turn his abolitionist rhetoric into action.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on so-called quasi-death-penalty states, which have criminal laws authorizing capital punishment but have gone five years or more without executing anyone. Professor Sarat explains what it means that Ohio and Nebraska are joining the 15 other de facto abolition states and argues that, in the end, the fate of America’s death penalty will be decided as much in those places as in the few states which continue to carry out the bulk of this country’s executions.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on some lessons we should learn from the cases of two people scheduled to be executed today, July 20, 2023. Professor Sarat points out that the two cases—James Barber and Jemaine Cannon—demonstrate, respectively, that we are not executing “the worst of the worst” and that the execution methods we use are unreliable at best.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out the hypocrisy of the Supreme Court in proclaiming the Constitution to be “colorblind” with respect to college admissions but turning a blind eye to blatant discrimination in the case of a Black man sentenced to death in Mississippi. Professor Sarat describes the facts of Clark v. Mississippi and argues that by refusing to act, the Supreme Court tacitly condones Mississippi’s blatant flaunting of the Court’s precedent.
In the spirit of American Independence Day, Amherst professor Austin Sarat suggests that we not only celebrate America’s ideals but also reflect on its failings—failings that include its continued use of capital punishment. Professor Sarat reiterates the problems with capital punishment, such as the ineffective and inhumane methods of execution, racial inequities, time on death row, and the fact that most of those we execute are victims of extensive abuse and neglect from childhood or earlier.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent exoneration of Barry Lee Jones from Arizona’s death row after evidence against him was revealed as “flawed.” Professor Sarat argues that shoddy defense lawyering, junk science, and myopic police work are regular features of America’s death penalty system and that dismantling the death penalty system is the only way to end the epidemic of false convictions.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent execution of Michael Tisius by the state of Missouri, despite a request by several of the jurors who sentenced him to death in 2010 that his sentence be commuted to life without parole. Professor Sarat points out that the finality and likelihood of errors are but two reasons that any civil and just society should abolish the death penalty.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat points out that when death penalty abolitionists take up the cause of saving the lives of people accused of mass murder, they need also to keep reminding people that, in the many less notorious cases in which the state seeks death as a punishment, the death penalty continues to legitimize vengeance, intensify racial divisions, promise simple solutions to complex problems, and damage our political and legal institutions.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s use of lethal injection as a method of execution. Professor Sarat argues that Justice Thomas has seldom come across a death sentence he wouldn’t uphold or an execution he wouldn’t try to expedite—and his opinion in this case was no exception.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes how Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee’s approach to the death penalty demonstrates the value of “strategic gradualism.” Professor Sarat points out that the careful use of a scalpel, particularly in the movement to abolish the death penalty, can be more effective than the use of a sledgehammer.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat observes that even in the Deep South, support for the death penalty is waning, with the latest development last week by Louisiana Governor John Bell Edwards announcing his support for ending the death penalty in his state. Professor Sarat calls upon other politicians in the South to sponsor and support bills to end capital punishment in their states.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat explains why the plan by a coalition of death penalty opponents in Nebraska to put the death penalty on the ballot is a risky strategy. Professor Sarat points out that important and successful work that death penalty abolitionists have recently done to reframe the debates about capital punishment has not yet succeeded in the electoral arena, and history suggests that death penalty abolition is more likely to come from the top down than it is from the bottom up.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on the recent changes in Oklahoma that suggest, perhaps surprisingly, that the state may be poised to abolish the death penalty. Professor Sarat observes that the 2022 election results, the objections of religious leaders, doubts among conservative politicians, and declining public support may signal a tide change in a state that has long been a leader in using death as a punishment.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week in Cruz v. Arizona, in which a 5-4 majority of the Court delivered a rare victory to a capital defendant. Professor Dorf describes the circuitous path Cruz’s case took and how it highlights an inadequacy in the standard for viewing the “adequacy” of state law grounds for denying federal judicial intervention.
Amherst professor Austin Sarat comments on two cases currently working their way through the Arizona court system, in which defense lawyers from the Capital Unit of the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender are raising innovative arguments based on the systemic racism in all aspects of American life. Professor Sarat argues that these carefully crafted and extensively documented motions call on judges to confront the reality of America’s racist past and continuing institutional racism before allowing the government to carry out any more “legal lynchings.”