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The Death Penalty

Grade level:

Grades 9-12


The activities in this lesson introduce the student to the issue of the death penalty. This lesson is designed to help students evaluate the death penalty in order to determine if it is an appropriate and just punishment for capital crime.


The student will

I. Consider in-depth various issues involved in the application and administration of the death penalty;
II. Gather and analyze information on the Web in order to come to a greater understanding of the complexities involved in this issue;
III. Develop a position on either side of the argument for or against the death penalty, which the student must defend.

Warm Up Activity (Anticipatory Set): What Do You Think? (5-10 minutes)

Post the following statement and question on the board, overhead or on paper for the students.

The death penalty is a very emotional issue for Americans. You probably already have your own opinions on the topic. It is important to consider both sides as we explore this issue.

Create a chart on your paper with headings for and against the death penalty. Using short phrases or sentences, list several (at least three) arguments on BOTH sides of your chart. Your chart should look something like this:

Opinions On The Death Penalty

Arguments in favor of the Death PenaltyArguments Against the Death Penalty
1) It may prevent serious crimes1) It does not prevent serious crimes

After students have listed their arguments, allow students to share their views as the class fills in a chart on the board or overhead together. Instruct students to add arguments to their own chart as they are posted. To close the discussion, have students place a check mark next to the arguments they agree with.

After the lesson is completed, it may be interesting to review the chart again and ask students if they want to change any of their check marks to indicate a shift in opinion on the death penalty.

Main Activity (Instructional Input): Video Activity

IV. View the videocassette THE DEATH PENALTY: American Justice (A & E Home Video) to get a feel for the history of the death penalty. Focus on the importance of the appeals process in the Chessman case.

V. View the CD-ROM FIRST PERSON: MUMIA ABU-JAMAL--Live from Death Row (Voyager Media) and have students discuss whether his case merits a new trial. The case is a good introduction to the various sociocultural factors which impact the issue of the death penalty in the U.S. Students can also gather complementary information on this case by researching newspaper archives.

Guided Practice: Simulation: Arguing before the Supreme Court

Information for the Teacher

Tell the students that they are going to engage in a simulation where lawyers present their viewpoints before the Supreme Court. Inform them that they will be developing positions on the death penalty that are based on research of pervious and current cases. These positions must be incorporated into a document called a "brief." A brief is a position paper that is submitted to the Supreme Court to assist the justices in arriving at a decision.

Students will be working in cooperative teams of four students per team. Each student must have a role to play. Students can share the roles during the duration of the activities, or they can decide on which role they want and stay with that role. It is up to the team.

The roles include but are not limited to the following:

VI. Spokesperson: Presents oral arguments before the court and the class.
VII. Mouse commander: clicks on Web sites and keys in Web addresses.
VIII. Word processor: typist on the keyboard when developing the position paper.
IX. Information manager: Reads information from computer screen or textbook to the group. This person also feeds typist information when researching and developing the position.
X. Question Manager: deals with technical and research problems before they go to the teacher. This person also provides moral support and settles interpersonal conflicts between team members.

Assigning Positions Teams of four students each will result in a total of six or seven teams depending on class size. The teacher should assign each group a position, either for or against the death penalty. The teacher can have teams pull slips of paper with "for" or "against" marked on them, or the teacher can allow students to choose their positions. Either way, three teams (or four) must end up taking the "in favor" side, and three teams (or four) must end up with the "oppose" position.

Putting the Activity On Line

If the teacher has access to a Web server, develop a Web site where the students' legal briefs can be posted. Use Microsoft Word or Word Perfect to save the students' briefs as hypertext documents. Include a page where Web visitors can submit their votes and opinions by e-mail and maintain an informal poll on the issue.

Take another quick poll and see if positions have changed. Ask those who've changed their position why.

Wrap-Up Activity (Closure):

I. The Views of Youth: An Informal Poll

Direct the students to carry out an informal poll with these directions.

The attitude toward the death penalty throughout its history vacillates and continues to be polarized. Different cultures and countries hold varied views and have taken different judicial stands on the issue. Take a quick poll of all of your fellow students whether it is ever justified to sanction a criminal act with the death penalty. Have someone note the results. Continue keeping track of the results over all classes doing the research. Allow students to poll students outside of class if the activity continues over a series of class periods.

Developing Written Briefs for the Supreme Court

Once students have completed the investigation of the Web sites listed above, allow them to have time to coordinate their facts within their groups. Once each student has identical facts, have the students write on the computer a brief that represents the opinion of the group. Each group might want to take on the name of an organization such as "Coalition Against Legalized Murder" (CALM).

Students should develop their own paragraphs based on their findings. They can place their rough drafts on index cards, which can be moved around an organized before placing them on the computer. Even after the rough draft has been placed on computer disk, it can still be revised and edited to create a coherent legal brief.

Have each group present their brief to the class. One team favoring the death penalty will start, followed by a group against the death penalty. Subsequent groups should follow in like fashion.

Have the non-presenting groups act as the Supreme Court by asking up to five questions per group. Each group gets ten minutes to present before questions are asked.

Reproducible student sheet for this exercise