Spring 1997, Volume XII, Number 2
The Death Penalty
Multidisciplinary Teaching about the Death Penalty: A Seminar for First Year Students
by Leo Carroll, Lynn Pasquerella, and Lawrence Rothstein
Three faculty at the University of Rhode Island -- a sociologist, a philosopher and lawyer/political scientist -- recently developed a team-taught, writing intensive freshman seminar on the death penalty, with the aid of a mini-grant from the ABA Commission on College and University Legal Studies. The "Perspectives on the Death Penalty" seminar includes philosophical, legal and social scientific modes of analysis.
We designed the course not only to illuminate legal and policy issues, but also to expose students to the different modes of analysis, questions asked, evidence, and answers considered acceptable in the different disciplines. Our goal is for students to gain greater proficiency in reading philosophical, legal, and social scientific texts and in listening to arguments critically and with understanding. We also expect students to take and defend a position with precision, coherence and clarity, even when it happens to be different from their own position on the issue under discussion. With respect to this objective, we believe the course has been extremely successful, albeit confusing, for the students who, at this stage in their learning development, tend to be seeking one right answer or approach to complex problems.
While we three instructors wish to facilitate the use of multi-disciplinary perspectives and are all familiar with the treatments given the death penalty by each other's fields, we have stayed very much in character regarding which classes and/or topics to lead. Thus, the sociologist took the lead in showing how social scientists have attempted to answer questions regarding issues such as deterrence and racial discrimination and presented students, through readings and lectures, with some of the body of evidence. When discussing philosophical and legal issues, his role has been mainly to point to the need for empirical evidence where relevant and to provide such evidence where possible. For his part, our lawyer and political scientist emphasized legal analysis of the interpretation of death penalty statutes, the Eighth Amendment, relevant cases, the rules of evidence and legal strategy in defending or prosecuting death penalty cases. When readings dealing with statistical analysis or philosophical issues were discussed, he contributed his insights into how a lawyer or judge might treat these issues in the context of a real or hypothetical situation. He often found himself making the arguments about why the law might not recognize strongly suggestive social scientific studies, in light of recent court decisions largely discounting statistical data.
One consequence of the multiple treatments was that the students often found themselves whipsawed. First, they read and discussed fairly elaborate and scientifically valid studies indicating bias, or at least arbitrariness, in the decisions about who received the death penalty. They accepted, with the appropriate skepticism of the social scientist, the results of those studies. Next, they were faced with fairly sophisticated, but strong, arguments about why even empirically-valid studies should not be the basis for a decision that the death penalty violates the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments. Finally, they have been faced with impressionistic readings and videos [see bibliography] about the crimes and the real people -- perpetrators, victims, and their friends and families -- in actual or potential death penalty cases.
It is at this point that legal and social scientific analysis merged with philosophical analysis. The philosophical material presented in the course was intended to provide a conceptual framework for considering specific moral controversies surrounding the use of the death penalty. Rather than trying to convince students to accept certain dogma as providing an authoritative solution to a social problem, our approach was to encourage the development of the students' own views in the context of how others have thought about such controversies. Thus, we sought to enhance students' critical thinking skills, such as the ability to identify one's own positions as well as the positions of others, to recognize and defend the principles upon which one's views are based, to construct and criticize arguments, expose hidden assumptions, and to use reason in drawing conclusions about what to believe or do.
Writing has been essential in the development of these skills. Each segment of the course begins with a brief essay written in or out of class. The students are then exposed to more information relevant to the topic through reading, lecture and discussion and to different conceptual frameworks. In a concluding exercise on each segment, they write a 4-5 page paper expanding, revising and refining their original essay. One of the students' earliest assignments, for example, was to read the case of the "Brothel Boy" from Norval Morris's The Brothel Boy and Other Parables of Law and write a brief opinion on how they would adjudicate the case if they were the judge. Following this exercise, they read excerpts from Penry v. Lynaugh and Furman v. Georgia and received instruction in basic principles of criminal law and in how judicial opinions are structured.
At the beginning of the class, our students were asked to indicate on a note card whether they supported, opposed or were uncertain about the death penalty and to briefly outline their reasons. We collected these cards without reading them, but will compare them to the students' analyses in their term papers covering their arguments for or against the death penalty. Our initial impression of the class was that the number of students who opposed the death penalty in principle was approximately equal to the number who favored the death penalty in at least some cases, while a smaller but significant number were uncertain. Indications in our class suggest that factual information and analysis do affect the positions of these students, despite some published research to the contrary. Their moral positions appear to be influenced by social scientific data, and there is a strong feeling among the students that legal arguments should also respect that data. [Note: Only two of our sixteen students are male, and there is no racial diversity among the students.]
We and the students have found this experience fascinating. Final judgment on the success of the course awaits the term papers and the end-of-the-course student evaluations of their experience. Even in the absence of these signs of success, we feel that there is great value in the enterprise of educating people about the death penalty. Following the lead of the American Bar Association, the American Philosophical Association has forwarded a similar resolution to its members. The motion enjoins members not to acquiesce in the present state of affairs, where "...serious public discussion and debate of the ethics of capital punishment has all but disappeared from the national conversation" in recent years. The three of us have played a small part in furthering the public debate over this important issue and, in doing so, have gained immeasurably.
Leo Carroll is Professor of Sociology, Lynn Pasquerella is Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Lawrence E. Rothstein is Professor of Political Science, all at The University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02881.
Books & Articles
Bowers, William J. (1993) Capital Punishment and Contemporary Values: People's Misgivings and the Court's Misperceptions. 27 Law and Society Review 157-175.
_________ (1984) Legal Homicide: The American Experience. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Butterfield, Fox (1995) All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Ellsworth, Phoebe C. and Samuel R. Gross (1994) Hardening of Attitudes: Americans' Views on the Death Penalty. 50 Journal of Social Issues 19-45.
Foucault, Michel (1979) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
Gross, Samuel R. and Robert Mauro (1989) Death and Discrimination: Racial Disparities in Capital Sentencing. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Johnson, Robert (1989) "This Man Has Expired": Witness to an Execution. 16 Commonweal 9-15.
McGarrell, Edmund F. and Maria Sandys (1996) The Misperception of Public Opinion Toward the Death Penalty. 39 American Behavioral Scientist 500-513.
Morris, Norval (1992) The Brothel Boy and Other Parables of the Law. New York: Oxford University Press.
Prejean, Helen, CSJ (1993) Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. New York: Random House.
Radelet, Michael L. and Glenn L. Pierce (1985) Race and Prosecutorial Discretion in Homicide Cases. 19 Law and Society Review 587-619.
Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)
McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987)
Payne v. Tennessee, 111 S.Ct. 2658 (1991)
Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989)
Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988)
Frontline: "Dead Man Walking"
Films for the Humanities & Sciences: "The Death Penalty;" "Judgment at Midnight"
Reviews of Death Penalty Videos
Spring 1997 Issue Home | The Death Penalty: A Scholarly Forum
Arbitrariness and the Death Penalty | Race and the Death Penalty
Victims and the Death Penalty | Purposes of the Death Penalty
Teaching about the Death Penalty | Conclusion and Participants List
Unedited Death Penalty Forum
ABA Calls for Moratorium | Policy, Statistics, and Public Opinion
Multidisciplinary Teaching about the Death Penalty
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