February 5, 2009   

AMHERST, Mass. — Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science and expert on law, has edited a collection of essays about wrongful convictions in the United States. Sarat edited the book, titled When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice ($22, 320 pp., New York University Press, 2009), with Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. The new book is part of The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Series on Race and Justice.

Since 1989, there have been more than 200 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. The 10 original essays in When Law Fails view these wrongful convictions not as random mistakes, but as organic outcomes of a misshaped larger system that is rife with faulty eyewitness identifications, false confessions, biased juries and racial discrimination. The contributors aim to make sense of justice gone wrong and answer several urgent questions. Are miscarriages of justice systemic or symptomatic, or are they mostly idiosyncratic? What are the broader implications of justice gone awry for the ways we think about law? Are there ways of reconceptualizing legal missteps that are particularly useful or illuminating? The essays both address the questions and point the way toward further discussion. They also reveal the dramatic consequences as well as the daily realities of breakdowns in the laws ability to deliver justice swiftly and fairly, and call on all Americans to look beyond headline-grabbing exonerations to see how failure is embedded in the legal system itself.

Sarat, who has taught at Amherst since 1974, is author, co-author or editor of more than 50 books, including Mercy on Trial, When the State Kills and Law, Violence, and the Possibility of Justice. He was the co-author of Something to Believe In: Politics, Professionalism and Cause Lawyering and co-editor of Law on the Screen. Winner of the James Boyd White Prize by the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities and the co-recipient of the 2004 Reginald Heber Smith Award, Sarat has also served as president of the Law and Society Association and of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities.