December 2014 Featured Book

Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty
by Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science; Associate Dean of the Faculty; co-authored by Amherst students

"We have harnessed the power to annihilate life on earth. Yet we still can't seem to extinguish, quickly, painlessly, and reliably, a single human life. Gruesome Spectacles tells us why. With his bright, clear, and extra-ordinary prose, Austin Sarat raises many disturbing and profound questions—not only about botched executions—but about State authorized killings made on behalf of the American people. A gripping and provocative read."—Richard Moran, Mount Holyoke College

  • Listen to a conversation about the book between Austin Sarat and Martha Umphrey, Bertrand H. Snell 1894 Professor in American Government In the Department of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought and Class Dean Prof of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought; Chair of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought.
  • Read an excerpt and a review.
  • Learn more about the author.
  • Visit Amherst Reads on Goodreads and start a discussion.

"How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection," wrote Justice Scalia, in a concurring opinion that denied review of a Texas death penalty case. But is it quiet? In his new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, Austin Sarat describes just how unquiet death by execution can be. If we assume a death row prisoner is guilty, how can we be sure that we are fulfilling the Supreme Court's mandate to ensure that his execution is "the mere extinguishment of life" and not a cruel and unusual punishment?

Gruesome Spectacles is a history of botched, mismanaged, and painful executions in the U.S. from 1890–2010. Using new research, Sarat traces the evolution of methods of execution that were employed during this time, and were meant to improve on the methods that went before, from hanging or firing squad to electrocution to gas and lethal injection. Even though each of these technologies was developed to "perfect" state killing by decreasing the chance of a cruel death, an estimated three percent of all American executions went awry in one way or another. Sarat recounts the gripping and truly gruesome stories of some of these deaths—stories obscured by history and to some extent, the popular press.