Jordan Steiker: Changing how America thinks about capital punishment

square-steikerThe cover story of Harvard Magazine‘s November-December issue is an in-depth look at the research and influence of Texas Law Professor Jordan Steiker and his sister, Harvard Law Professor Carol Steiker. The Steikers have a new book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, which, according to the authors, “traces the unusual and distinctive history of top-down judicial regulation of capital punishment under the Constitution and its unanticipated consequences for our time.” Much praise has rightly been lavished on the just-published work.

The Harvard Magazine profile, written by acclaimed essayist and New Yorker contributor Lincoln Caplan, and with pictures by Stu Rosner, is itself a marvelous piece of reporting. With the editors’ permission, we are reprinting just a few slightly abridged paragraphs below, and we strongly encourage our readers to visit the entire piece, either online or by securing an actual copy of the issue.


“THE STEIKERS’ NEW BOOK, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment (Harvard University Press), explains conclusively the problems of the American death-penalty system and why the Court’s regulation has not fixed them. There is not much difference between the core of the conclusions in the book and (the Steikers’) earlier reports, yet the book has an historical breadth and an explanatory power that take it far beyond any earlier assessment.

“It is a commanding account of a judicial intervention that has given many Americans false confidence in capital punishment as a fair and consistently applied criminal sanction. In reality, despite hundreds of rulings—including those that have eliminated the death penalty for youth under 18 and for the intellectually disabled, and that have said it should be used to punish only the worst of the worst murderers—the Supreme Court has not corrected the many and serious ways it works badly.

“The Court has said repeatedly that the sole justifications for capital punishment are the roles it plays in deterring murder and in exacting retribution. The Steikers show how the death penalty fails to serve either purpose. The very large discrepancy between the high number of people sentenced to death and the relatively low number executed takes away the penalty’s deterrent force. The generally long delays between the imposition of death sentences and the subsequent executions, and the conversion of many death sentences into life sentences (so that more than three-fourths of all death-row inmates gain a second life) takes away its retributive power.

“Courting Death makes a devastating case. It is the most important book about the death penalty in the United States—not only within the past generation but, arguably, ever—because of its potential to change how the country thinks about capital punishment. It has the insight, vision, and authority to help resolve one of the most divisive social issues of the past half-century. It demonstrates mastery of a prodigiously intricate, often bewildering body of law, and the ugly but revealing history to which the law is linked.”

Read the entire article here.

In addition, the Harvard Law news website has just published a separate short interview with both Jordan and Carol Steiker, here.)