Submitted on Wednesday, 3/5/2014, at 4:41 PM

By Peter Rooney

The image on the book’s cover is lurid—an electric chair dripping with blood—and the title is just as provocative: Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.

Book cover

But far from being a “true crime” page-turner, Gruesome Spectacles, just released by Stanford University Press, is a carefully researched history of botched, mismanaged and painful executions in the U.S. from 1890 to 2010. Its sobering conclusion: a method to bring about the “perfect death” that is not “cruel and unusual” (as mandated by the U.S. Constitution) remains surprisingly elusive.

The book finds that about 3 percent of executions have been “botched” over that 120-year period, despite the evolution of killing methods, from hanging to electrocution to gas and lethal injection. The book defines a “botched execution” as one that does not follow an established protocol, and estimates that the rate of botched executions for lethal injections, the prevailing method of execution, is about 7 percent, in part because its protocols are more precise and therefore more difficult to follow.

“The legitimacy of capital punishment depends on our capacity to kill people with no more pain than is necessary,” said author Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College and a leading national authority on the death penalty. “To study botched executions is to study the fate of the guilty, not because we should be sympathetic to them, although I believe we should be. This isn’t about them; it’s about us, and who we want to be as a country and a society.”

Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat

Although their names don’t appear on the book’s cover, Sarat credits four former students—Kate Blumstein ’13, Heather Richard ’13, Aubrey Jones ’13 and  Madeline Sprung-Keyser ’13—as his collaborators and said he insisted that their names appear on the title page.

“From looking at the cover, it looks like the sole author is me,” Sarat said, during a recent interview in his office in Converse Hall.

“But open it up and on the title page it’s Austin Sarat and my four students.” Turning to a page titled “A Note on Collaboration,” he read: “While the conventions of publishing required that my name appear alone on the front cover, our collaboration is manifest on every page of the book.”

Sarat said Gruesome Spectacles is an extremely rare example of a scholarly book from a top-tier academic publisher that’s co-authored by undergraduates. “If it’s not the first time, it’s as rare as Halley’s Comet,” he said. “I think it’s important to argue for collaborative work with students, and against this feeling that scholarship can’t be any good if it’s done with undergraduates and you can’t be any good if you’re working with them.”

Sarat is the author or editor of several books on crime and punishment, including When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition (Princeton University Press, 2002).

The idea for an examination of botched executions was born in a small seminar titled “America’s Death Penalty” (funded by a grant Amherst received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) that Sarat taught in the spring of 2011. Halfway through the semester, Sarat asked the six participating students if any were interested in staying on campus for the summer and conducting research with him on executions gone wrong. Five signed on and spent hours finding, reading and categorizing newspaper accounts; four stayed on as collaborators for the new book.

Austin Sarat with two student collaborators

Madeline Sprung-Keyser ’13,  Sarat and Aubrey Jones ’13 (L to R).

The group published three journal articles about various aspects of their research, but saved the biggest finding for the book: that since the beginning of the 20th century, an estimated 3 percent of all executions in the United States were botched. They found that, of 8,776 executions that took place during the period they studied, 276 involved some problem in carrying out the death penalty.

The book explores these cases in greater detail and also highlights the problematic relationship between the death penalty and the available technologies for taking life. It reviews the methods of execution and the promises made about them.

“Each method, whether hanging, the gas chamber, electrocution or lethal injection, was seen as a better way of delivering no more pain than is necessary in the business of execution,” Sarat said. “The book examines, for each technology, the various ways in which executions using that technology were botched, and tells the stories of the persons whose lives were ended during a botched execution.”

Richard, one of Sarat’s former students, said she researched and wrote the book’s section on hangings and was surprised to discover how even that method of execution was “improved” over time through mechanical enhancements to the gallows and the noose.  

“People still were strangled to death despite every technological improvement and meticulous measurement,” she noted.  “The ‘science’ was more of a comfort for the American public, making hanging more palatable.”

Richard, who is now legal assistant in the litigation department at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York and plans to pursue a J.D./Ph.D., said she and her fellow students uncovered examples of botched executions by reading the original media accounts of them.

“We all found it fascinating that these editors and reporters took what is already an incredibly sensational event—a botched execution—and made it even more sensational by changing the details,” she said. “And on top of that, the institution of capital punishment was not really examined or critiqued. It certainly says something about the newspapers and their readers.”

Sarat agreed. “How a society punishes, and then talks about it, reveals its true character,” he said. “Punishment tells us who we are. The way a society punishes demonstrates its commitment to standards of judgment and justice, its distinctive views of blame and responsibility, its understandings of mercy and forgiveness and its particular ways of responding to evil.”

“Sadly,” he said, “our attachment to the death penalty reveals an unpleasant, unseemly side of American character.”