"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? Renewed and vigorous debate over the death penalty has erupted as DNA testing has proven that many on death row are in fact innocent. In this debate, however, the guilty have been forgotten. In his new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, renowned legal scholar 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.A few blurbs:
"Austin Sarat's spellbinding book has captured the spirit of his agile mind. Gruesome Spectacles is provocatively written and sure to keep readers keenly interested in the captivating stories of many death row prisoners. This book will hook you from the first chapter and continue to fascinate you throughout its journey. A must-read."—Charles OgletreeMore information, including an excerpt from Chapter 1, is available here.
"We have harnessed the power to annihilate life on earth. Yet we still can't seem to extinguish, quickly, painlessly, and reliability, 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
And from the Chronicle of Higher Education: the story of the unusual undergraduate research project that led to the book.