Is capital punishment just? Does it deter people from murder? What is the risk that we will execute innocent people? These are the usual questions at the heart of the increasingly heated debate about capital punishment in America. In this bold and impassioned book, Austin Sarat seeks to change the terms of that debate. Capital punishment must be stopped, Sarat argues, because it undermines our democratic society.
Sarat unflinchingly exposes us to the realities of state killing. He examines its foundations in ideas about revenge and retribution. He takes us inside the courtroom of a capital trial, interviews jurors and lawyers who make decisions about life and death, and assesses the arguments swirling around Timothy McVeigh and his trial for the bombing in Oklahoma City. Aided by a series of unsettling color photographs, he traces Americans’ evolving quest for new methods of execution, and explores the place of capital punishment in popular culture by examining such films as Dead Man Walking, The Last Dance, and The Green Mile.
Sarat argues that state executions, once used by monarchs as symbolic displays of power, gained acceptance among Americans as a sign of the people’s sovereignty. Yet today when the state kills, it does so in a bureaucratic procedure hidden from view and for which no one in particular takes responsibility. He uncovers the forces that sustain America’s killing culture, including overheated political rhetoric, racial prejudice, and the desire for a world without moral ambiguity. Capital punishment, Sarat shows, ultimately leaves Americans more divided, hostile, indifferent to life’s complexities, and much further from solving the nation’s ills. In short, it leaves us with an impoverished democracy.
The book’s powerful and sobering conclusions point to a new abolitionist politics, in which capital punishment should be banned not only on ethical grounds but also for what it does to Americans and what we cherish.
Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is the coauthor of Divorce Lawyers and Their Clients and the editor or coeditor of numerous volumes, including The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics, and Culture and Liberal Modernism and Democratic Individuality (Princeton).
"Sarat's analysis of the controversies surrounding capital punishment is both broad and deep."—Booklist
"Sarat makes a persuasive argument here for the abolition of the death penalty."—Library Journal
"Engaging and accessible . . . this impassioned work raises a number of provocative questions about America's love affair with the death penalty."—Publisher's Weekly
"Challenges readers to consider why the U.S. continues to execute inmates when most other Western democracies have abandoned the practice. [Sarat asks] readers to examine the role every citizen plays in carrying out the death penalty, even if he or she never enters a courtroom."—Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune
"At the heart of When the State Kills is the notion that there is no way to square capital punishment with democratic values. . . . [A] powerful and eloquent case for the abolition of the death penalty."—William Vance Trollinger, Christian Century
"The strength of the book lies in the attention the author gives to the connections between capital punishment and broader cultural and political issues. . . . As a result, this is one of the most original and lively books on capital punishment in a long time."—John Langan, America
"A powerful, penetrating account of the death penalty process and its cultural concomitants."—David Garland, Punishment and Society
"By introducing a popular audience to the core insights of cultural/legal analysis and then showing why those insights are relevant to public policy, Sarat has helped to advance both an interdisciplinary academic field and an important societal debate. And that is high praise indeed."—Paul Berman, Columbia Law Review
"A fresh and insightful contribution to the discourse on capital punishment."—Harvard Law Review
"A volume that is strikingly successful in fulfilling its author's pledge to disclose 'new narrative possibilities in the conversation about state killing.'"—Timothy Kaufman Osborn, Yale Law Journal
"When the State Kills remains appropriate for the 21st Century, perhaps now more than ever."—David S. Mann, Law and Politics Book Review
"[A] passionate and thoughtful book."—Andrew Norris, American Political Science Review
"Valuable for its creative, yet hard-headed effort to confront the meaning of the death penalty in American culture, this book attends to capitol punishment as killing and citizens as killers. . . . Aside from its compelling contribution to study of the death penalty, this timely book is splendid cultural critique and commentary."—Ethics