Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty. By Austin Sarat. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2014. 288 pp. $24.00 cloth.

Date01 December 2014
Published date01 December 2014
Book Reviews
Jinee Lokaneeta, Editor
Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.
By Austin Sarat. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2014. 288 pp.
$24.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Daniel LaChance, Department of History, Emory
The marketing team at Stanford University Press could not have
picked a more grimly appropriate release date for Austin Sarat’s
latest book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death
Penalty. In April of 2014, on the eve of the book’s publication, the
state of Oklahoma botched the execution by lethal injection of
Clayton D. Lockett. After being declared unconscious, Lockett
began writhing and attempted to sit up. Forty-three minutes after
the execution began and seven minutes after officials tried to abort
it, he died of a heart attack. On editorial pages across the world,
writers decried the horror of what appeared to be a torturous,
lingering death.
But such deaths, Sarat shows in his history of executions gone
wrong, have been anything but anomalous in the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries. Working with four collaborators—Katherine
Blumstein, Aubrey Jones, Heather Richard, and Madeline Sprung-
Keyser—Sarat used newspapers to survey 8,776 executions from
1900 to 2010. His sobering finding: 3 percent of all executions
since 1900 have been botched. Over 8.5 percent have been botched
since 1980: Americans have gotten worse, not better, at executing
The book is sure to become an essential resource for scholars
wishing to pursue the important theoretical and empirical ques-
tions botched executions raise about the practice of capital punish-
ment in the United States. Beyond giving us an unprecedented
understanding of the frequency and nature of botched executions
(an appendix provides short summaries of each of the 276 botched
executions Sarat and his collaborators found), Gruesome Spectacles
compellingly situates them in a larger history of the American death
penalty. In four chapters dedicated to each mode of execution
(hanging, electricity, lethal gas, and lethal injection), Sarat charts
Law & Society Review, Volume 48, Number 4 (2014)
© 2014 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.

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