Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution

Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution

Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution

Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution


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.


If we simply use the term “mercy” to refer to certain of the
demands of justice (e.g., the demand for individuation),
then mercy ceases to be an autonomous virtue and instead
becomes part of … justice. It thus becomes obligatory,
and all the talk about gifts, acts of grace, supererogation,
and compassion becomes quite beside the point. If, on the
other hand, mercy is totally different from justice and
actually requires (or permits) that justice sometimes be set
aside, it then counsels injustice. In short, mercy is either a
vice (injustice) or redundant part of justice.

—Jeffrie Murphy

No one who has never watched the hands of a clock
marking the last minutes of a condemned man's existence,
knowing that he alone has the temporary Godlike power
to stop the clock, can realize the agony of deciding an
appeal for executive clemency.

—Michael DiSalle

Death is power's limit, the moment that escapes it.

—Michel Foucault

ON JANUARY 10 AND 11, 2003, Governor George Ryan emptied Illinois's death row. Exercising his clemency powers under the state constitution, he first pardoned 4 and then commuted 167 condemned inmates' sentences in the broadest attack on the death penalty in decades. Ryan's act was a compelling moment in our society's continuing turmoil about crime and punishment, appearing, at first glance, to be a rare display of mercy in distinctly unmerciful times. As a seemingly humane, compassionate gesture . . .

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