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Ending the Death Penalty

Should the Death Penalty be Abolished?

In this eLesson, students will explore five major controversies surrounding the death penalty in the United States.  While analyzing evidence and opinions in support of both sides, students will also consider its constitutionality.



  1. As homework the night before, assign your students to read the Bill of Rights. Their task is to identify what provisions pertain to the rights of accused and convicted criminals.  Of the provisions they find, which amendment, in particular, is especially applicable to the rights of convicted murderers? (Answer: Eighth Amendment and its prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.)
  2. In class, play the short introductory video “Death Penalty in America.” After explaining the controversial nature of the death penalty, lead a class brainstorm about the major conceptual areas in which people disagree.
    1. The major areas include, but are not limited to, debates about the death penalty’s morality, whether it deters crime, whether it is cost affective vis-à-vis life imprisonment, whether it is constitutional, and whether too many innocent inmates are executed. Your class may think of other major areas of disagreement.
  3. Using your school’s computer resources, dispatch students to spend a day conducting their own research project.
    1. They can start their research by using the resources included in this eLesson. Pro/ provides information from many viewpoints, while the CNN opinion pieces are good introductions to both perspectives.  Students should also use the State Death Penalty Map to explore how different states treat capital punishment.  Does their state have a death penalty, and if so, how often is it used?
    2. Using the major conceptual areas of disagreement which the class previously discussed, students should gather three pieces of evidence on the pro and con sides of each category. Their evidence may come in many forms.  For example, evidence for or against the cost-effectiveness of the death penalty will likely center on financial data, while evidence for or against the morality question will revolve around careful ethical arguments.  This is a good opportunity for you to teach about the different kinds of evidence, credible and untrustworthy sources, and how to untangle arguments.
  4. Now that students have collected three pieces of evidence on both sides of each debate category, they should pause to consider their own perspectives.
    1. Based upon their findings, which positions do they find logically consistent, credible, and (if it is a data-driven category) fact-centered?
    2. Did their research alter their previous viewpoints?
    3. Given what they now know, close the loop by bringing them back to their homework assignment on the Bill of Rights. Do they believe that the death penalty is constitutional and upholds the Eighth Amendment’s requirement that cruel and unusual punishments not be inflicted?  How did they reach their conclusion?
  5. As homework after class, or using your school’s computer resources, have students access the BRI interactive page, “Should the Federal Government abolish the death penalty?” They should record their vote and contribute to the debate!