The Great Death Penalty Debate

written by Hector Soto, Esq.
Public Administration Unit
Behavioral and Social Sciences Department

During the fall 2013 semester, Professor Howard Jordan and I (Behavioral and Social Sciences Department, Public Administration Unit (soon to be Law and Public Policy Unit) were each teaching a section of Criminal Justice 202: Corrections and Sentencing. One of the more interesting and controversial subjects covered in the course is capital punishment, more commonly referred to as the death penalty.

The learning objectives for the sentence of capital punishment include understanding its history in United States, understanding its moral and legal aspects especially as concerns the eighth amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, understanding how it has been implemented in the US historically as well as currently including the issues of equability and wrongful execution, and understanding its societal value as a deterrent of future serious crime.

Professor Jordan during his prior teachings of the course had successfully utilized an intra-class debate format to enhance his students’ learning and understanding of the issues. The debate format also allowed the members of the class as were observers and questioners to more fully participate as well as clarify for themselves what his/her position would be on this matter.

For the fall 2013 semester, Professor Jordan and I decided to conduct an interclass debate, which we titled and marketed as the Great Death Penalty Debate. Our respective classes selected a debate team of five members and one alternate. Each debate team member was assigned or volunteered to argue one of the following death penalty issues: Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Innocence (wrongful execution), equitability (arbitrariness and/or discriminatory application), retribution (“just desserts” and social vengeance) and deterrence. My team had the pro-death penalty position and Professor Jordan’s team was in opposition.

Professor Jordan and I served as the coaches of our respective teams. In addition to the required materials and readings for the course, Professor Jordan and I provided our respective teams with additional materials and readings concerning capital punishment in general and/or each team member’s issue in particular. The team members also did their own research regarding their respective issues in preparation for the debate. We also did debate preparation. Three departmental colleagues, two criminal justice professors from the PA Unit and a professor from the psychology unit were asked to serve as the debate judges.

The debate was held in B501, the large lecture hall. Attendance by our respective classes was mandatory and required a written assignment as a follow-up. However, the event was open to the college (sponsored by the then Pre-law Society Club, now the Law and Social Justice Club). The event drew an overflow crowd.

The debate format began with an introductory three minute opening statement by the debate team captains (who were selected by the teams). The pro-death penalty position commenced the program. This was followed by each team member, always starting with the team members in favor of capital punishment, making a three minute presentation regarding their respective issue. Each presentation was followed by a three minute unscripted “crossfire” exchange between the two issue presenters. Completion of the team member presentations was followed by a three minute closing summary statement by a member chosen by the team during the event.

After the summary statements, the three judges and the audience members had a 10 minute opportunity for a Q&A and comments.  Scoring sheets – with a 1-to-5 point grading system per each aspect of the debate – had been distributed in advance to the judges and the audience members.

Upon completion of the Q&A, judges and audience members were asked to complete and submit their scoring sheets. The judges then tallied the results. Each judge had to provide his scoring of the debate and offer an explanation of his scoring after which the total judge-audience tally was announced. During this debate, the pro-capital punishment position prevailed.

The debate format provided an engaging as well as entertaining tool for the exploration of the issues and questions concerning capital punishment. The debate team members reported that they learned about the issues emotionally as well as intellectually. They also enjoyed the experience of “thinking on their feet.” Student audience members from the respective hosting CJ 250 classes also reported a better understanding of the issues involved as well as greater class cohesiveness thereafter. Audience member in general through their questions and comments demonstrated a good working knowledge of their criminal justice system and its workings. Feedback from participants and observers in general was very positive.

Please contact Professor Soto or Professor Jordan if additional information is required.

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