10th Annual Michael J. Hindelang Lecture

David Garland: Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition

Since 2002, the School of Criminal Justice and the Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center at the State University of New York at Albany have hosted the annual Michael J. Hindelang lecture.  Established in the memory of Prof. Michael J. Hindelang, a pioneer in the field of criminology who died at the height of a brilliant academic career in 1982 at the age of 36, the series aims to disseminate the work of prominent criminologists and criminal justice scholars to academics, practitioners, and the general public. This year’s lecture marked the series’10th anniversary and was delivered by David Garland, Professor of Sociology and Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law at New York University.  Professor Garland spoke on the topic of his latest book, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition (2010, Harvard/Belknap Press).

Prof. Garland’s lecture attracted a large and diverse audience.  As he spoke, he offered an explanatory account of the unusual persistence of capital punishment in the United States through an historical exploration of the forms and functions of the death penalty in that country, rich with international comparisons.  Its present persistence, he suggested, is due in large part to the distinctively federated structure of American politics.  This structure permits direct democratic influence over the appointment not only of sentencing policy-makers, but also of ‘sentencers’ – judges and governors – themselves, and thereby ensures their sensitivity to public opinion regarding capital punishment.  Conversely, this federated structure also prevents the comprehensive abolition of the death penalty by the national government as occurred in other countries.  Commenting on its reintroduction since the 1970s, Garland noted the distinctive forms of late-Twentieth and early-Twenty-First Century capital punishment in the United States: controversial, cumbersome, and circumscribed to the point of total inefficacy for either retribution or deterrence by the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Prof. Garland’s remarks were followed by responses from panelists—Distinguished Profs. James Acker and David Bayley of the School of Criminal Justice, and Prof. Vincent Bonventre of Albany Law School.  In a series of stimulating exchanges, which included thought-provoking questions from the audience, participants debated the meaning of Prof. Garland’s arguments for the likely future of the death penalty in the United States, the relevance of his comments for other penal trends such as mass incarceration, and a number of methodological points.  Response papers from the panelists and a rejoinder from Prof. Garland will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Criminal Law Bulletin.  In addition, a video recording of the event is available via webcast at www.albany.edu/scj using the Ualbanytv video link on the right side of the page.

The event was also the occasion of the announcement of the donation by the late Prof. David Baldus of his collected papers to the National Death Penalty Archive, which is housed at the University.  Prof. Baldus, who died June 13, 2011, was Joseph B. Tye Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law and devoted much of his academic life to examining inequities in capital sentencing decisions.  His work, spanning four decades, focused particularly on racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty and placed him at the very center of legal and policy debates on the issue.  He testified in numerous cases, though none more noted than McCleskey v. Kemp 481 U.S. 279 (1987), a landmark case during which his study of racial biases in the death penalty in the state of Georgia, authored with Charles Pulaski and George Woodward, was the central plank of social scientific evidence presented by the defense.  The study, concluding that the races of both defendants and victims resulted in biases in sentencing, was praised by Justice Brennan for its 'unprecendented refinement and strength.'  The National Death Penalty Archive is an unparalleled collection of items related to capital punishment which includes, among other things, execution records compiled by M. Watt Espy, the papers of Hugo Adam Bedau, and the records of the Capital Jury Project.  Prof. Baldus' generous contribution will ensure his historic influence on the death penalty in the United States is fully memorialized, and will add tremendously to this rich resource.