The majority of Americans believe in capital punishment, and are confident that the criminal justice system, while not perfect, does work. Advances in DNA research, however, which have led to the exoneration of death row inmates, are causing people to take a serious second look at the reliability of the criminal justice system. In this lesson students will explore the issues surrounding the death penalty debate and participate in a values-clarification activity to help them form their opinions on this topic. Students will also create a talk show to discuss the issues involved with DNA testing and the death penalty.
Grade Levels: 9-12
Subject Areas: Civics, language arts, thinking and reasoning
Students will be able to
analyze the issues surrounding capital punishment.
express views on capital punishment.
synthesize information from a variety of sources.
interpret facts and express meaning through writing activities.
Building Background Activity - Two 50-minute class periods
The purpose of this activity is for students to build background on the controversy surrounding the death penalty and to participate in a values-clarification activity to examine, or determine, their feelings and beliefs on this emotional and controversial topic.
1. Designate five areas in the room that will be used to represent students’ positions on the death penalty.
Area one will be for students who unequivocally support the death penalty.
Area two will be for students who believe in the death penalty, but think it should be used in a more judicious manner.
Area three is for students who are unsure, or have mixed feelings.
Area four is for students who generally oppose the death penalty, but feel that it can be used in extreme cases.
Area five is for students who strongly oppose the death penalty in all situations.
2. Ask students to go to the number that best describes their position on capital punishment.
3. Instruct students to find someone who has a different number from theirs and spend ten minutes discussing their views on capital punishment. After five minutes, ask the students to switch roles and clearly explain their partner's position.
Researching the issues
4. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of the research topics listed below. Tell students that they are going to research the views of people who support, and people who oppose, the death penalty. Ask students to gather information on both sides of the issue.
Does the existence of capital punishment deter crime?
Is the death penalty an appropriate punishment for certain crimes?
Is capital punishment applied arbitrarily?
Are minorities and poor people more likely to receive the death penalty?
Does it cost more to keep people in jail for life than to execute them?
Executing the innocent
Should the risk of executing an innocent person factor into the use of the death penalty?
Teacher Note: When researching on the Internet, it is important to determine the reliability of the information contained on the site. This site from Purdue University provides a tutorial that addresses the issues of accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage. You may want to send students to this site before they begin this activity. http://www.lib.purdue.edu/InternetEval/index.html http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/
Pro-Death Penalty.Com Web Site
University of Alaska, Anchorage Justice Center Web Site
Death Penalty Information Center Web Site
ACLU Death Penalty Campaign Web Site
5. Ask groups to collect information on their topic. These Web sites may be used as a resource to begin research.
6. After students have finished researching, ask each group to share its information with the class.
7. Record the information on a class chart. When finished, the class chart should contain a list of the six topics, with facts and opinions from both sides of the argument. SEE CHART
Revisiting your position
8. Ask students to line up on the numbers according to how they now stand on the capital punishment issue. Discuss any changes that might have occurred between the two times. The following is a suggested list of discussion questions:
What was your position at the beginning of this activity?
Has your position changed? Explain.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this topic? Explain.
Do you think you have a more in-depth understanding of this issue after researching the topic? Explain.
In this activity students will listen to, or read, the “Testing DNA and the Death Penalty” radio program. 1. Play the “Testing DNA and the Death Penalty” radio program found at
2. Ask students to take notes on how advances in DNA testing are impacting the criminal justice system.
3. Provide time for students to browse and read the links on the site. 4. The following is a suggested list of questions to help initiate a class discussion after listening to the program and viewing the Web site:
Do you think that the criminal justice system works and that it is basically fair? Explain.
Were you surprised that the courts convicted Earl Washington? Explain.
What does the Earl Washington case say about the system?
In what ways might the advances in DNA research change the criminal justice system?
Do you agree with Gary Close, the County Prosecutor in Culpepper, Virginia, when he stated that the respect for science has been elevated to “almost religious faith”? Explain.
Do you think that Roger Coleman’s DNA should be re-tested? Explain.
Do you think that the public has a right to know if Roger Coleman was innocent? Explain.
What, if anything, do you think should be done when a person is released from jail after being convicted of a crime they didn’t commit? Such as compensation, formal apology,etc.
Do you agree with Kenneth Stolle, State Senator from Virginia Beach, when he talked about the death penalty being flawed but justified? Explain.
Did this program cause you to re-think any of your opinions concerning capital punishment? Explain.
In this activity students will examine the issues of DNA and capital punishment through the creation of a talk show. The talk show will be based on an imaginary bill in Congress calling for a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment. Students will research various perspectives on the subject, assume an imaginary role based on this information and become a character for the talk show. The talk show panel will consist of the following seven people:
A person featured on the “Stories of Innocence and Exoneration from the Center on Wrongful Convictions” section of the Web site
A member from the Justice for All organization
Governor George Ryan
A member of Roger Coleman’s family
Talk show host
1. Tell students to imagine that there is a bill in Congress calling for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty. Their assignment is to create a talk show that will discuss the issues surrounding the moratorium.
2. Create seven small groups based on the preceding list of participants. Explain to students that some of the people in the talk show, like Earl Washington and Governor Ryan, are based on real people, other people, such as the DNA expert or a member of the Justice for All organization, will be fictitious. Tell students that their job is to examine the issues from the perspective of their chosen character and portray this person in the talk show.
Teacher Note: The talk show group may require more students than the other groups.
Use the Web sites listed for all of the groups to generate your questions for the talk show.
6. Stage the talk show.
Teacher Note: It might be useful to discuss talk show protocol before the talk show begins.
Suggested talk show guidelines
Allow each panel member time to speak without interruption.
Make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
Provide opportunities for audience participation and questions.
Allow students to argue their point of view.
7. After the talk show, ask students to write a letter to the editor expressing their point of view on the issue of a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment.
Watch the movie The Green Mile and discuss how the story might have been different if DNA evidence had been available during this time period.
Visit the Death Penalty Art Website at
http://www.newsart.com/x/x9.htm. Ask students to choose one of the drawings and respond to it in writing.
Read Sister Helen Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking. Select excerpts from the book and have the class act them out. This would be a good opportunity for students to play the role of a person who has a view that’s opposite their own.