Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Austin Sarat's "Gruesome Spectacles"

Austin Sarat is Associate Dean of the Faculty, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science, and Director of Mellon Project on Student-Faculty Research at Amherst College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty readers will find part of the account of the botched execution of Allen Foster on May 2, 1953. Foster was executed in North Carolina’s gas chamber for robbing and raping the woman for whom he worked as a hired hand. In my book I try to tell the stories of those, like Allen Foster, whose executions went wrong and of the suffering they endured, but also about the suffering they inflicted on the victims of their grievous crimes. I do so in a way that treats a gruesome subject without sensationalism. Indeed, as one reviewer put it, “If ever a book took a measured approach to an incendiary subject, it is this one.”

My book offers the first comprehensive treatment of America’s botched executions and of their significance in law, popular culture, and in the struggle to end capital punishment. I studied every American execution from 1890-2010 and determined that just over 3% of them were botched. Among all of the technologies we have used to execute people—hanging, the firing squad, electrocution, the gas chamber, and lethal injection—the last is bungled the most, at 7%.

While botched executions have helped propel changes in the technologies used in capital punishment, they have played little role in the campaign to end the death penalty. This is so, in part, because they are seen as mere accidents with no broader significance. I hope that by offering a broad historical perspective that we can now more clearly consider whether there is something of broad significance about botched executions.

My book offers a chapter on each of the major technologies used in executions since 1890. In each I discuss the promises and aspirations associated with each new technology. I then examine the various ways that each technology goes wrong and tell the stories of the cases in which botched executions occur, focusing on the lives of the condemned, their crimes, and what happened to them when they were executed.

The book tells the story of America’s obsession with ideas of scientific progress, the way those ideas drove the search for efficient, reliable and humane methods of execution and how that search has come to naught in one technology after another.

I hope to help precipitate a conversation about whether 3% is an acceptable error rate in the practices of capital punishment.
Learn more about Gruesome Spectacles at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue