Cover of Gruesome Spectacles by Austin Sarat
Gruesome Spectacles
Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty
Austin Sarat


288 pp.

Cloth ISBN: 9780804789165
Digital ISBN: 9780804791724
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Excerpts and More

"How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection," wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin 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 in recent years, especially given the potential for ineffective administration of the drugs traditionally used for lethal injections, and their limited availability as drug makers become unwilling to supply them. In 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?"

Now in paperback with a new preface outlining the most recent shifts and information on the American death penalty debate, 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.

About the author

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. Sarat has written for numerous academic and trade publications, and his books include: When the State Kills (2001), Mercy on Trial (2005) and Re-imagining To Kill a Mockingbird: Family, Community, and the Possibility of Equal Justice under Law (2013).

"Sarat is mostly sucessful in navigating these dangerous waters of describing the gruesomeness of botched executions without making them just a spectacle or systematic failure of people or equipment. His success is a result of balancing accounts from a variety of sources, situating his work in the social sciences and legal studies."

— David Fazzino, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

"America has no more incisive scholar of capital punishment than Austin Sarat, who always has something fresh to say. Gruesome Spectacles offers readers new and provocative insights."

—Scott Turow, author of Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty

"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 Ogletree, author of All Deliberate Speed and The Presumption of Guilt

"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, Mount Holyoke College