Though surveys indicate many Americans oppose the death penalty, measures to abolish capital punishment routinely fail at the voting booth. Just why this happens is examined in detail in a new book by Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science.
This spring, Cambridge University Press will publish The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment.
It’s the second volume to emerge out of Sarat’s recurring summer research tutorial, “America’s Death Penalty.” The first book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty (Stanford University Press, 2014), attracted widespread attention to Sarat as a scholar on the death penalty, from as far up as the Supreme Court, where Justices Steven Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor both cited the text in their dissenting opinions on a case involving lethal injection.
The new volume notably includes title-page co-author credit with two students from the course, John Malague ’19 and Sarah Wishloff ’19.
“While the conventions of publishing did not allow all of our names to appear on the front cover, our collaborative work is manifest on every page,” Sarat wrote in a “note on collaboration” for the book.
“The course is designed to enable students to work with me, not for me. That’s an important distinction: they are not my research assistants. They’re my collaborators,” Sarat says.
“America’s Death Penalty” is one of a number of recurring six-week summer research tutorials at Amherst, each of which offers a small groups of students—enrollment is limited to six—the opportunity to pursue a research topic that dovetails closely with a professor’s scholarly interests. Originally a three-year pilot project supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Research Tutorials in the Humanities and “Humanistic” Social Sciences are now supported by the College.
“In order to do successful research, you have to be flexible, you have to be creative, you have to be persistent and you have to be inventive,” says Sarat. “That’s the value for the students. You’re going to get a little exercise in persistence.”
Each session of Sarat’s course has resulted in a journal article focusing on a particular question related to the death penalty. Topics have included botched executions, representations of the death penalty on film, news coverage of the death penalty, and the consequences of abolishing capital punishment.
The Death Penalty on the Ballot started as an April 2018 journal article in Law & Social Inquiry. Sarat co-wrote the article with Malague, Wishloff and four other participants in the 2017 tutorial: Lakeisha Arias de los Santos ’19, Katherine Pedersen ’19, Noor Qasim ’18 and Logan Seymour ’19.
Malague, an LJST major, jumped at the opportunity to take the seminar and contribute to the article and book. “I enjoy the work of research and writing. I think it’s not every day a professor offers the chance to collaborate on a book with you,” he says.
The book builds on the framework of the article and adds historical detail and theory.
“We found that there were a lot of gaps in the research that we had done that had to be back-filled,” Wishloff says. In the book, they had room to add relevant quotes and to examine the lives of the people involved.
As the students describe them, their findings aren’t very inspiring for those who would like to see the death penalty abolished through the voting booth: “The public tends to have a greater punitive tendency than do bureaucratic experts,” Malague says.
Gruesome Spectacles similarly credited students Katherine Blumstein ’13, Aubrey Jones ’13, Heather Richard ’13 and Madeline Sprung-Keyser ’13.
“We’re making important and original contributions to understanding America’s death penalty,” Sarat says. “I don’t know what the fate of the [new] book will be, but Gruesome Spectacles, written by me and undergraduates, has been cited now several times by the United States Supreme Court.”