Amherst professor Austin Sarat critiques the conclusion of a study by Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College suggesting that the American public widely supports the death penalty. Professor Sarat points out that the study’s “sensationalist” questions are likely to elicit responses based on expectations of what the interviewer wants, rather than what respondents would do given the responsibility of deciding real cases in which a real person’s life is at stake.
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.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes ways in which states are attempting to normalize errors that occur during the process of lethal injection. Professor Sarat argues that lethal injection is demonstrably far from the painless form of death it once promised to be, and that it should be abolished in the United States.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on the decomposition of the legal injection paradigm over the past few decades, since it was first adopted in Oklahoma in 1999. Professor Sarat observes the evolution of the procedure over time and points out that none of the changes has resolved lethal injection’s fate or repaired its vexing problems.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—argues that life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP) are as problematic and damaging as the death penalty. For this reason, Professor Sarat calls upon death penalty opponents to reconsider their support for LWOP sentences.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—comments on the news that both houses of the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation abolishing the death penalty in that state. Professor Sarat explains why Virginia’s change in policy is so significant: it has executed more people than any other state and is the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to abolish capital punishment.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—explains the enhanced risk of COVID-19 infection in the federal death row in Terre Haute, not only among inmates but among those necessary to carry out executions. Professor Sarat calls upon the Trump administration and other officials to focus on saving, rather than taking, lives inside and outside prison.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—argues that Attorney General William Barr erroneously characterizes the families of victims of violent crimes as a homogeneous group unified in their support of the death penalty. Sarat points out that, in fact, some families of victims oppose the application of the death penalty (for a variety of reasons), so by trying to justify the reinstatement of the federal death penalty as bringing closure to victims and their families, Barr and his political allies are simply using these victims and their families to support his political ends.
In light of the federal government’s resumption of executions, Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes some of the common arguments of proponents and opponents of capital punishment. Colb observes that many of the moral arguments are based on a consequentialist perspective and suggests that a deontological perspective might lead to novel arguments and considerations about the death penalty.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on a religious liberty issue presented by the upcoming execution of Wesley Ira Purkey. Sarat explains that Purkey’s spiritual advisor is unable to attend Purkey’s execution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he points out that for the federal government to carry out the execution anyway would belie its purported commitment to religious liberty.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on Attorney General William Barr’s recent order to resume federal executions and the political implications of that order. Sarat briefly describes the history of the federal death penalty in the United States and explains that, regardless of what state we live in, when the federal government puts someone to death, it does so in all of our names.
Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—explains how a recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court allowing that state to proceed with its plan to execute Harry Franklin Phillips highlights America’s illusory quest to ensure that the death penalty be precisely targeted only at “the worst of the worst.” Sarat argues that it is now time to acknowledge that the attempt to exclude clear categories of offenders from death eligibility has failed to adequately protect the dignity of those prisoners, which Justice Anthony Kennedy viewed as a central part of the Eighth Amendment.
Guest columnist Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—points out one unusual effect of the COVID-19 pandemic: deferring the executions of death row inmates. Sarat observes that while past pandemics have not affected the rate at which states have executed inmates, last week the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted 60-day stays in the execution sentences of two men, and other states seem poised to follow suit.
UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin comments on a case currently before the US Supreme Court—Madison v. Alabama—in which the Court will consider whether a death row inmate may constitutionally be executed despite his advanced dementia causing him not to recall the crime for which he is to be executed. Griffin highlights the ethical and legal issues raised in that case and addresses considerations on both sides.
Sixty-five years after the deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Touro Law Center professor Rodger Citron reviews Howard Blum’s In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies (HarperCollins 2018). Citron describes how Blum’s telling of the story adds to the story of the Rosenbergs by focusing on Bob Lamphere and Meredith Gardner—two men who pursued Soviet spies for years—and explains how the story of the Rosenbergs has continued relevance today.
Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb considers one recent instance in which the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed a standard because it was factually more accurate than a prior standard, and several other instances in which the Court has done the opposite. Colb points out that, unfortunately, the law often seeks facts that facilitate a desired outcome rather than facts a more just or correct outcome.
Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that presents the issue whether and when a criminal defendant should pay with his life for an error made by his lawyer. Dorf explains the facts behind the case as well as the relevant legal precedents. He argues that Davila, the criminal defendant in this case, might convincingly argue that his first real opportunity to complain about the ineffectiveness of counsel on direct appeal is in a state habeas proceeding.
Cornell University law professor Michael Dorf considers whether long delays in carrying out capital punishment render the practice unconstitutional. Dorf responds specifically to an argument put forth by the late Justice Scalia that execution delays are chiefly the result of the extensive procedures that the Court’s liberals have required for carrying out an execution.
Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies discusses the problem of states executing death row inmates under laws subsequently found to be unconstitutional, as has happened in Texas and in Florida, and likely in many other cases. Margulies laments that the United States continues to experiment with capital punishment when experience demonstrates the procedures for imposing this irreversible sentence are rife with problems.
Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb discusses the claim that IQ scores of minorities should be upwardly adjusted for the purpose of eligibility for the death penalty. Drawing upon an article on the issue by Robert Sanger, Colb argues that even if the practice of adjusting IQ scores were scientifically supported (which it is not), doing so for death penalty purposes constitutes invidious race discrimination in violation of the federal Constitution.