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Death penalty > Debate

Focus on the Death Penalty

The Death Penalty Debate


Introducing the Debate provides a number of resources which present both sides of the death penalty debate in the U.S. Views of law enforcement officers, as shown in a national poll of police executives and a resolution from a national police organization, are split on the death penalty. A selection of resources indicating positions on the death penalty from a religious perspective include links to biblical citations and statements of officials, organizations, and individual adherents of different religious traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. The debate on capital punishment embraces many more specific issues, such as cost, inequities in the justice system, etc.; resources giving arguments on specific points are included on the Specific Issues page.

Disclaimer: The Justice Center is not responsible for the content of any outside site linked here, nor does a listing here imply an endorsement of a site's opinions or content or a guarantee of its accuracy. For further information about this site, including answers to questions by students, see the FAQ.

Introducing the Debate

Death Becomes Us: Why Americans Support Capital Punishment by Michael Manville
An analysis of why the U.S., unlike other industrialized nations, continues in its use of the death penalty.

"Angel on Death Row" | Text-only

Dead Man
Sister Helen Prejean's controversial 1993 book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States detailed her experiences as a spiritual advisor to death row prisoners in Louisiana's Angola State Prison. A 1995 film based on the book, "Dead Man Walking", garnered several Academy Award nominations, one resulting in a Best Actress Oscar for Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Prejean. In 1996 the public television program Frontline went behind the scenes to examine the real life situations portrayed in the book and film and explore the debate on the death penalty. This site includes a transcript of the Frontline program, interviews with principals in the cases and those involved with the book and film, pro and con statements on the death penalty, links to capital punishment sites, and a chronology of the death penalty in the U.S.

Sr. Helen Prejean and Dead Man Walking

  Helen Prejean  

Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and the movie based upon it have become important foci of the current death penalty debate in the U.S. Sister Prejean visited Alaska in January 1998, speaking in both Anchorage and Juneau.

Talk of the Nation
The daily National Public Radio program maintains an archive of shows aired from 1995 to the present, including some on the death penalty. The free Real Audio player is required to hear the shows.

  • January 13, 1998: Susan Boleyn, Senior Assistant Attorney General of Georgia (a death penalty state) and Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center discuss capital punishment in the light of recent high profile federal capital cases, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber case.
  • February 11, 1997: The second hour of the program features two sitting federal judges, Judge Alex Kozinski and Judge Steve Reinhart, both with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, discussing the role of federal judges in the imposition of death sentences and the effect of a judge's personal opinion on capital rulings.
  • July 2, 1996: A discussion with criminal defense attorney Sean O'Brien and Susan Boleyn of the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia (a death penalty state) on the use of capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on its use in 1976.

Focus on the Death Penalty
American Bar Association, Focus on Law Studies 12(2), Spring 1997. Eight scholars from law, the social sciences, and the humanities discuss and debate capital punishment as a matter of scholarship, public policy, and classroom teaching. The portions included here are edited versions of a two-week online dicussion in February 1997.

  • Unedited Death Penalty Forum (WordPerfect document): The entire two-week online discussion, unedited, in a downloadable WordPerfect 6.1 document.
  • "The ABA Calls for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty: The Task Ahead -- Reconciling Justice with Politics": by Leslie A. Harris. American Bar Association, Focus on Law Studies 12(2), Spring 1997. By a vote of 280 to 119, the American Bar Association House of Delegates in early 1997 called for a moratorium on capital punishment until greater fairness and due process are assured.
  • Recommendation 107: American Bar Association, 3 February 1997. The American Bar Association calls for a moratorium on capital punishment until severe problems with its application are addressed, specifically regarding the provision of counsel to defendants in capital cases, state post-conviction and federal habeus corpus proceedings, the elimination of racial discrimination in capital sentencing, and preventing the execution of the mentally retarded or persons under 18 at the time of offense. The resolution states also that "in adopting this recommendation, apart from exiting Association policies relating to offenders who are mentally retarded or under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the offenses, the Association takes no position on the death penalty." This page offers for download a WordPerfect version of the report upon which the recommendation is based.

Flashbacks: Who Deserves to Die?
Atlantic Unbound presents articles on the death penalty that have appeared in past issues of The Atlantic Monthly and gives readers the opportunity to discuss the death penalty in its online conferencing area.

  • "Capital Punishment" by George Bernard Shaw. The Atlantic Monthly, June 1948. "But the ungovernables, the ferocious, the conscienceless, the idiots, the self-centered myops and morons, what of them?" asks the famous playwright. "Do not punish them. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill them."
  • "Is the Death Penalty Necessary?" by Giles Playfair. The Atlantic Monthly, September 1957. The London barrister answers: No. The justice system should, rather, aim at prevention, rehabilitation, and reform.
  • "Sentencing: The Judge's Problem" by Irving Kaufman. The Atlantic Monthly, January 1960. Kaufman was the judge who pronounced sentence on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for espionage in the early 1950s.
  • "Let's Get Real About Executions in America: Three Easy Steps" by James Carroll. The Boston Globe (op-ed piece.), May 31, 1994. An anti-death penalty opinion piece focusing on methods of execution and the presumed "humane" alternative of lethal injection.

Capital Punishment: Life or Death?
This project by members of a university composition class at University of Texas, sharply divided in their stand on the death penalty, presents statements on all the major pro and con arguments, plus papers written by the students on various aspects of capital punishment.

Kansas State Collegian, 2 February 1995.
Two university students respond to the reintroduction of capital punishment in Kansas in 1994. Kansas provides the death penalty in cases of capital murder given one of seven aggravating circumstances; persons determined to be mentally retarded are excluded from capital sentencing. As of yearend 1996, no one had been executed or sentenced to death in Kansas under the 1994 statute. Kansas executed 15 persons between 1930 and 1967, when an unofficial moratorium on executions began.

"Capital Punishment: Arguments For Life and Death"
by Jennifer C. Honeyman and James R.P. Ogloff. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 28(1), January 1996. Despite capital punishment having been abolished in Canada 20 years ago, the majority of Canadians continue to favour the death penalty as a sentencing option. This Canadian study investigates the effects of argument position (for or against the death penalty) and type of justification for punishment (deterrence, morality, rehabilitation, incapacitation, economic, and possibility of mistake) on participants' sentence recommendations for a defendant found guilty of first degree murder.

Ethics Updates: Punishment and the Death Penalty
Part of a general Ethics Updates site designed primarily for ethics instructors and their students, this page provides resources on the death penalty, plus links to an online forum, one of several provided in order to facilitate serious and reflective dialogue on difficult moral issues.

The Case Against the Death Penalty, 3rd ed.
by Hugo Adam Bedeau. American Civil Liberties Union, 1997. A pamphlet for the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project presenting all the major arguments against the death penalty by a well-known professor of political philosophy. An earlier version (July 1992) of the pamphlet is available through the World Policy Institute web site.

John Stuart Mill: Speech in Favor of Capital Punishment
Speech delivered before Parliament (United Kingdom) on 21 April, 1868, in opposition to a bill that would have banned capital punishment. Mill was a prominent utilitarian philosopher and politician.

"American Justice in America?"
by Ferndando Javier Litardo. April 1994. Comparison of abolitionist and retentionist views concerning the death penalty. The author takes an anti-death penalty position. This document is also available at the ASC Critical Criminology Death Penalty site.

Death Penalty and Sentencing Information in the United States
Justice For All, 1 October 1997. Addresses major issues in the death penalty: the risk of executing the innocent, deterrence, race, cost of the death penalty versus life imprisonment without parole, death penalty procedures, and Christianity adn the death penalty. This site takes a pro-death penalty stance.

Law Enforcement Views
Law enforcement officers in the United States are also divided in their opinions of the death penalty.

Religious Positions
Many people's attitudes toward the death penalty are framed by their religious beliefs. The listing included here is not meant to be comprehensive, but simply to provide a starting point for persons seeking answers about religious belief and capital punishment. Suggestions for additional links are welcome.

General Resources

Biblical References
What the Bible has to say about the death penalty is of particular importance to Judaism and Christianity, the dominant religious traditions in the U.S.

Numerous Catholics in the U.S. support the death penalty, but the Catholic Church has officially opposed it for two decades.

Protestant denominations are not unanimous in either condemning or endorsing the death penalty. This selection provides statements on both sides of the issue.



  • "Capital Punishment: Is Man a Machine or a Moral Agent?": by Greg Koukl. Transcript of a commentary aired 24 February 1996 on the Christian radio show Stand to Reason responding to a letter to a newspaper about the the execution of William Bonin, the "Freeway Killer" and the third person executed in California after the reinstatement of the death penalty.
  • Report on Capital Punishment: Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, August 1980; originally published in The Lutheran Witness, 16 May 1976. An examination of death penalty issues from a Protestant Christian theological standpoint declares that capital punishment is in accord with Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confession. Prepared to assist the membership of the synod in making decisions regarding capital punishment.
  • "The Bible's Teaching on Capital Punishment": by David L. Brown. Oak Creek, WI: Logos Communication, 1992. Advocates the return of the death penalty to Wisconsin, currently a non-death penalty state, and examines biblical statements on punishment by death, asserting that "Capital punishment IS biblical. It is for today."
  • "Is Capital Punishment Sanctioned by Divine Authority?: by Alexander Campbell. 1846. Campbell's lengthy essay answers yes. See also a "Capital Punishment No. 2" by Tolbert Fanning (Christian Review 4(6), June 1847), which replies to Campbell's essay with the opposite conclusion. Campbell and Fanning were major figures in the nineteenth century Restoration Movement which resulted in the founding of the Churches of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and others.

The Qur'an and Sunnah provides the law of retaliation for murder.

Green, Melissa S. ( 16-Mar-2005 ). "The Death Penalty Debate." In Melissa S. Green, compiler (1998-2009), Focus on the Death Penalty (website). Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. <http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/death/debate.html> (accessed date).

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