On January 11, 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan--a Republican on record as saying that "some crimes are so horrendous . . . that society has a right to demand the ultimate penalty"--commuted the capital sentences of all 167 prisoners on his state's death row. Critics demonized Ryan. For opponents of capital punishment, however, Ryan became an instant hero whose decision was seen as a signal moment in the "new abolitionist" politics to end killing by the state.
In this compelling and timely work, Austin Sarat provides the first book-length work on executive clemency. He turns our focus from questions of guilt and innocence to the very meaning of mercy. Starting from Ryan's controversial decision, "Mercy on Trial" uses the lens of executive clemency in capital cases to discuss the fraught condition of mercy in American political life. Most pointedly, Sarat argues that mercy itself is on trial. Although it has always had a problematic position as a form of "lawful lawlessness," it has come under much more intense popular pressure and criticism in recent decades. This has yielded a radical decline in the use of the power of chief executives to stop executions.
From the history of capital clemency in the twentieth century to surrounding legal controversies and philosophical debates about when (if ever) mercy should be extended, Sarat examines the issue comprehensively. In the end, he acknowledges the risks associated with mercy--but, he argues, those risks are worth taking.
Winner of the 2006 James Boyd White Prize, Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities "Professor Sarat is a merciless researcher ... and provides an arresting account of mercy in the modern age that will engage readers on all sides of the debate."--Harvard Law Review "A multi-layered and thought-provoking book... Mercy on Trial is an important contribution to death penalty jurisprudence. In an era when the death penalty debate focuses so heavily on tinkering with the machinery, it is inspiring to come across such a well-written call to respond to the higher instincts within us: the instincts to empathize and forgive."--JaneAnne Murray, New York Law Journal "Austin Sarat has written yet another thoughtful and thought-provoking book on the death penalty... Sarat clearly and profoundly considers if, how, and when executive branches of government should use [clemency] with respect to the death penalty."--Choice "This book is rich in detail for those who care about these issues. Its observation that clemency is disorderly when framed only as mercy is well-taken. There are, fortunately, other good reasons for granting clemency."--Edward Kent, Law and Politics Book Review "This book is a welcome and most original addition to this troubling topic."--John Cooper, Times (London) "Mercy on Trial offers several insights for those interested in crime, law and capital punishment. It is at once a theoretically sophisticated treatment of the role of mercy and clemency in a liberal legal system, as well as a concise history of 20th-century mass capital clemencies. But perhaps most importantly, Mercy on Trial provides a nuanced analysis of Governor Ryan's high-profile and controversial mass commutation."--Paul J. Kaplan, Theoretical Criminology "Austin Sarat deftly deconstructs recent examples of clemency to illustrate the illusion of mercy in the clemency process."--Daniel P. Patrykus, Wisconsin Lawyer