Sarat's When the State Kills Examines the Death Penalty and America

April 10, 2001
Director of Media Relations
413/542-8417

AMHERST, Mass.—Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College, has written When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition ($29.95, 314 pp., Princeton University Press, Princeton 2001), a critical appraisal of the effect of capital punishment on American law, politics and culture.

“State killing damages us all,” Sarat writes. He calls on the United States to “stop one line of killing that we have within our power to stop,” in order to preserve what we value in our legal institutions and begin to heal our cultural and political divisions. State killing, an apparently clean solution, leaves us divided and incapable of solving our many complex problems of crime, inequality and justice, he says.

Sarat considers the victims’ rights movement, the technology of executions and the role of juries and lawyers in capital cases. He also tells the story of an “everyday” capital trial that he witnessed in Georgia, a trial marked by “bold and powerful” violence—the crime itself, the defendant’s life story and the threat of a state killing. At the end of the trial, Sarat writes, “anxiety,” not “reassurance,” remains.

Sarat also offers an analysis of the representation of capital punishment in popular culture. Such recent films as Last Dance, Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile finally “legitimate state killing, even as they point out some of its operational failures.”

But state killing, Sarat writes, “reveals both the weakness of the state and its strength." Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking and a noted opponent of the death penalty, said of his book, “no one who reads it will be the same again.”

Sarat has taught at Amherst since 1974, and is the co-author 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, Liberal Modernism and Democratic Individuality.

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