This month, DPIC celebrates Women’s History Month with weekly profiles of notable women whose work has been significant in the modern death penalty era. The third entry in this series is Harvard Law School Professor Carol Steiker, a renowned educator and influential death penalty scholar. 

Professor Steiker began her legal career as a clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. Professor Steiker clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall and has attributed her interest in and knowledge of the death penalty to him. After her clerkships, Professor Steiker worked at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where she defended indigent criminal defendants. She has represented criminal defendants in all stages of the criminal process, including arguing death penalty cases in front of the Supreme Court.  

At Harvard, Professor Steiker is the faculty sponsor of the Capital Punishment Clinic, and the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law, specializing in criminal justice and capital punishment. In addition to her work on individual cases, Professor Steiker has served as a consultant and expert witness on the criminal justice system and capital punishment issues.  

Her 2016 book, Courting Death, which she co-authored with her brother and frequent collaborator, University of Texas Law Professor Jordan Steiker, examined the U.S. Supreme Court’s decades-long efforts to reform the death penalty. In Harvard Magazine, Lincoln Caplan called Courting Death, “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.” 

Professor Steiker also played a key role in the 2009 decision of the American Law Institute (ALI) to remove the death penalty from its Model Penal Code. The ALI, a nonpartisan group of judges, scholars, and lawyers, commissioned Carol and Jordan Steiker to produce a report on the administration of the death penalty. Together, the Steikers called for “the rejection of capital punishment as a penal option under current circumstances” because “such a statement would reflect the view that the death penalty should not be imposed unless its administration can satisfy a reasonable threshold of fairness and reliability.” Since the publication of this report, six states have abolished the death penalty. In 2015, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court cited the Steikers’ report in his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, where he opined that it was “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”  


Lincoln Caplan, Death Throes, Harvard Magazine, March 1, 2024, https://​www​.har​vard​magazine​.com/​2016​/​10​/​d​e​a​t​h​-​t​hroes; Robin Konrad, Professor Carol Steiker, Author of Courting Death, Offers an Inside Look at the Supreme Court and the History and Future of America’s Death Penalty, The Death Penalty Information Center, March 1, 2024, https://​death​penal​ty​in​fo​.org/​r​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​s​/​p​o​d​c​a​s​t​s​/​d​i​s​c​u​s​s​i​o​n​s​-​w​i​t​h​-​d​p​i​c​/​d​i​s​c​u​s​s​i​o​n​s​-​w​i​t​h​-​d​p​i​c​-​p​r​o​f​e​s​s​o​r​-​c​a​r​o​l​-​s​t​e​i​k​e​r​-​a​u​t​h​o​r​-​o​f​-​c​o​u​r​t​i​n​g​-​d​e​a​t​h​-​o​f​f​e​r​s​-​a​n​-​i​n​s​i​d​e​-​l​o​o​k​-​a​t​-​t​h​e​-​s​u​p​r​e​m​e​-​c​o​u​r​t​-​a​n​d​-​t​h​e​-​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​-​a​n​d​-​f​u​t​u​r​e​-​o​f​-​a​m​e​r​i​c​a​s​-​d​e​a​t​h​-​p​e​nalty; The American Law Institute, ALI Operations, March 1, 2024, https://​www​.ali​.org/​a​b​o​u​t​-​a​l​i​/faq/; Harvard Law School, Carol S. Steiker, March 1, 2024, https://​hls​.har​vard​.edu/​f​a​c​u​l​t​y​/​c​a​r​o​l​-​s​-​s​t​e​iker/.